According to a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), most military service members discharged for misconduct are diagnosed with some sort of mental health disorder at some point during their career.
In four years, the GAO recognized that 3 out of 5 discharged service members had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), alcoholism, traumatic brain injury (TBI), or some other mental health issue at least two years before they were signed off the military.
Many of those separated from the force due to misconduct were not discharged honorably, making them ineligible for benefits entitled to veterans.
Soldiers discharged for violent conduct
The Department of Defense has recognized PTSD and TBI as the “signature wounds” of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. These and plenty of other conditions can pass unnoticed in the military and society. They can easily affect how soldiers feel, how they behave, and what they think, often leading to rebellious conducts, and subsequently to the misconduct discharge of the officer.
Misconduct discharge can be caused by drug use, criminal behavior, absence without leave, and insubordination.
Congress has passed laws requiring the military to take into account mental health diagnoses before discharging servicemembers due to misconduct, although these regulations do not seem to make an effect.
To perform the study, the GAO analyzed Department of Defense (DOD) data and reviewed current policies pertaining the handling of personnel concerning their mental health. They interviewed officers in the Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, and the Navy.
The GAO determined that 62 percent of the 91,764 members of the military discharged for misconduct between 2011 and 2015 had been diagnosed with PTSD, TBI, or other conditions that represent mental health disorders. 23 percent of them received an “other than honorable” characterization of their years of service, which attempts against their entitlements as veterans.
Apparently, how the military handles PTSD, and other mental health conditions is not consistent with how officers are discharged from duty. For example, the Navy does not call for a mental health examination before removing a member of the armed forces due to misconduct. The GAO suggests that it is likely that the Army and Marine Corps do not address PTSD and TBI correctly, as some of the supervising officers have not received training to spot the symptoms of a person suffering from the disorders mentioned above.
Army and Marine Corps counseling policies require servicemembers to be counseled about their veteran benefits before appealing the decision to discharge them. In 1 out of 4 cases of discharge, the discharged official was not advised in the process.
Furthermore, military services are not actively monitoring whether they are following current guidelines for handling officers that suffer from mental health disorders.
“Without monitoring adherence to these policies, the military services cannot provide assurance that servicemembers with PTSD and TBI are receiving adequate consideration of their conditions as well as the services DOD has established for them,” the report reads.
Traumatized in combat, discharged for disobedience
Combat-related PTSD is a serious mental condition that takes over a soldier’s brain, even years after the traumatic experience has occurred. The soldier is faced with intense feelings of danger, adrenaline, and fear, taking a toll on its daily life.
The hippocampus of soldiers with PTSD is altered immensely, as it is the part of the brain in charge of handling emotions and short-term memory, while experiences and resolution of conflicts lie in the prefrontal cortex, which is also deeply affected by PTSD. Whenever the brain experiences a traumatic flashback, these two structures activate and take over the whole cognitive process, putting the soldier in a “fight or flight” mode. The body then excretes hormones which should not be released into the bloodstream unless the person was in a situation that’s actually considered dangerous.
Higher levels of aggression towards society are normal in soldiers with PTSD, even if the traumatic event has occurred years prior. Spouses of veterans are often shocked by sudden bursts of aggression whenever the patient is, for example, woken up without warning, as the soldier would react to the event as if it were responding to a deadly threat. PTSD veterans often react aggressively towards even the most insignificant things, which goes to show that insubordination, disobedience, and criminal behavior could very well be offsprings of the mental condition.
But PTSD not only affects violent behavior but also places a significant psychological burden on the patient. PTSD veterans tend to be diagnosed with feelings of guilt, paired with depressive and suicidal thoughts. This is frequently called “survivor’s guilt,” as the soldier feels guilty for having survived an enemy attack when his or her battalion did not, or when an acquaintance suffered a crippling loss while the patient remained unharmed.
Survivor’s guilt, among other types of the psychological burden caused by PTSD, can lead to suicidal thoughts. An estimate of 18 veterans committed suicide each day in 2010, showing that mental illness has far more implications than merely the non-honourable discharge of a soldier.