Invisible war injury can be root of behavior dubbed military misconduct

We disagree on many things, but most Americans believe in collectively providing medical and financial support for our military service members and veterans, especially after having been wounded in combat. In an explosive piece of investigative journalism with national fallout, the Colorado Springs Gazette has raised awareness of a new, insidious phenomenon that is putting our wounded warriors at risk.

Too quick to discharge?

Specifically, the Gazette reports that increasing numbers of other-than-honorable discharges for misconduct may be based on negative behaviors caused not by true misconduct, but rather by symptoms of combat-inflicted mental injuries like post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.

Loss of benefits

If a soldier is discharged in a category other than honorable, he or she may become ineligible for military and veterans' benefits like separation pay, medical care, educational and vocational support, and other benefits. Ironically, he or she may be discharged for war-injury-related behavior and end up destitute and ill because the other-than-honorable discharge prevents access to medical treatment for that very service-related injury.

Difficult to diagnose

The media has widely reported about the steep increases in TBI and PTSD in service members who served in Afghanistan or Iraq. Many were hurt by improvised explosive devices or IEDs or other bombs. Medical advances have allowed these victims to survive injuries that would have previously been fatal and we are only beginning to understand how to recognize and treat resulting neurological and psychiatric injuries.

In addition, the long-term psychological effects of the traumas these soldiers experienced and observed too often wreak havoc on their emotional health and personal lives as they try to readjust to civilian life. While it has been challenging to diagnose sometimes invisible war-related harm like PTSD, depression and anxiety, the Gazette's article describes a major study published in 2012 that suggests an objective link between exposure to explosions and brain injury.

Emerging evidence

Boston University researchers exposed mice to blasts comparable for them to what these soldiers experienced. The explosions made the mice's heads shake violently at extremely high speeds and later the animals showed cognitive and memory deficits. Mouse-brain changes - even after just one blast -looked like human brains after severe Alzheimer's disease.

An explosion in discharges for misconduct

The Gazette found that at the eight Army bases where most combat troops are stationed discharges based on "misconduct" have risen almost 70 percent since 2009. Many of the minor reasons for misconduct discharges reflect behavior that is symptomatic of TBI or PTSD: drug use; serious anger; missing or being late to appointments, work or formations; or poor decision making.

Ironically, the Mayo Clinic lists as possible signs of TBI, PTSD or both: problems with memory, concentration and tiredness; mood swings; depression, guilt and hopelessness; anxiety; sleep disorders; headaches; nausea; seizures; flashbacks and nightmares; social withdrawal, including relationship problems; anger; delusions; and substance abuse.

According to the Gazette, sometimes military doctors' orders for special battalion placements or further medical evaluation are not followed, seeming to slip through the cracks as discharges and courts-martial (military criminal charges) proceed instead.

Don't give up easily

The Gazette's reporting has spurred members of Congress to attempt to pass new laws to insure appropriate medical evaluations precede discharges and courts-martial, but in the meantime any emotionally or physically injured service member discharged in a classification less than honorable or facing court-martial should speak with an attorney with experience in military law to understand the legal options like fighting charges, appealing a denial of benefits, challenging a discharge or its classification, or seeking military-record correction.