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Former soldier sues Army for alleged wrongful mental health discharge

Nov. 21, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
The Pentagon is reviewing thousands of discharges of troops for personality disorders after revelations the Army had downgraded the diagnoses of some soldiers at Madigan Army Medical Center, Wash., (pictured) from PTSD to personality or adjustment disorder. A former soldier has filed a lawsuit against the Army for denying him medical retirement.
The Pentagon is reviewing thousands of discharges of troops for personality disorders after revelations the Army had downgraded the diagnoses of some soldiers at Madigan Army Medical Center, Wash., (pictured) from PTSD to personality or adjustment disorder. A former soldier has filed a lawsuit against the Army for denying him medical retirement. (Army)
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A former Army National Guard soldier has filed a lawsuit against the Army, saying the service illegally denied him medical retirement by discharging him for an adjustment disorder when he actually suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Former Sgt. William Cowles of Connecticut alleges he was wrongfully denied full retirement benefits when he was medically evacuated from Iraq in 2003 following a mental breakdown.

He later was discharged for adjustment disorder, a condition considered to exist before a person enters military service, and therefore he is disqualified from disability compensation.

Cowles’ mental health crisis stemmed from seeing several men in a neighboring unit die and watching the killing of a civilian truck driver. Two months after he was dismissed from the military, Veterans Affairs Department physicians diagnosed him with service-connected post-traumatic stress disorder.

Cowles is seeking the maximum amount allowed under law for damages — $10,000 — but he really just wants to be medically retired, according to his legal counsel, two law student interns from the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School.

“The Army Board for Correction of Military Records has denied every single application from veterans who received discharges for adjustment disorder and requested corrections to military retirement for PTSD in the past decade,” second-year law student Sopen Shah said. “This discrimination against disabled veterans is intolerable.”

Concerns over improper mental health discharges in the military have existed since at least 2008, when the Government Accountability Office found that the services were not properly following separation requirements for personality disorder discharges.

Since 2001, the military has discharged at least 31,000 service members for personality or adjustment disorders, a family of mental health diagnoses characterized by inflexible and dysfunctional behaviors.

Following the GAO report and revelations the Army had downgraded the diagnoses of some soldiers at Madigan Army Medical Center, Wash., to personality or adjustment disorder when they were clinically diagnosed with PTSD, critics and lawmakers pressed for reform.

In recent years, lawmakers have introduced legislation that would require DoD to revisit and correct, if necessary, the records of service members discharged for personality or adjustment disorders since Sept. 11, 2001.

In June 2012, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered the review of thousands of discharges of troops whose mental health diagnoses were changed to a non-compensable condition by a medical evaluation board. That review is currently underway.

Cowles’ suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Connecticut, follows his efforts to appeal his discharge to the Army records correction board. By law, a federal court can review the board’s recommendation and rule on it if it finds that the board’s decision was arbitrary or capricious, the result of an error or not based on substantial evidence.

“We believe there are many other veterans out there in the same circumstances. We hope this will prompt them to come forward to have their records corrected,” Yale law student Miriam Hinman said.

Cowles was not present at the news conference announcing the litigation on Thursday. But he said in a prepared statement he hoped his case will bring attention to the issue.

“The Army rushed me out the door without proper medical attention,” he said. “I hope my case can ... help other veterans in my position get the benefits they deserve.”

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