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New policy protects Marines, sailors facing separation for mental health issues

June 8, 2016 (Photo Credit: Marine Corps)

Marines and sailors facing involuntary separation due to a diagnosed mental health condition will now be better guarded against leaving the military with other-than-honorable discharges. 

The unprecedented change was made last week by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. It requires service members with conditions like post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury to have a disability evaluation before a final decision on their involuntary separation is made.

Veteran groups lauded the change and are calling on other military branches to follow suit.

In the past, misconduct was the predominate factor in every involuntary separation. This long-held approach adversely impacted veterans’ ability to receive benefits, and did not take into full consideration how the service member's condition may have contributed to the misconduct.

Diagnosed mental health conditions will take precedence over misconduct under the new Disability Evaluation System, which is effective immediately. Additionally, Marines and sailors with a diagnosed mental health condition who are facing other-than-honorable discharge will be referred to the first general or flag officer in their chain of command for a final determination.

Keeping faith 

The new policy was largely driven by comments heard as Mabus visited sailors and Marines, family members, and veteran groups, said Navy Capt. Patrick McNally, the SecNav's spokesman. The change required a months-long policy review and some legal steps to allow the secretary to make the change. 

SECNAV, Marines, sailors visit Times Square
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus talks to Marines and sailors during Fleet Week 2016. Mabus signed a new policy protecting troops who are dealing with mental health injuries from other-than-honorable discharges.
Photo Credit: Lance Cpl. Warren Smith/Marine Corps

Mabus called keeping faith with veterans under all circumstances "our solemn vow," according to a news release announcing the change. It's important to address any service members whose separation is a result of PTS or TBI, he added.  

“For more than a decade, we've asked a tremendous amount of our people and their families," Mabus said. “In turn, we have a responsibility to support their needs, whether they are serving the Navy and Marine Corps mission around the globe or transitioning from uniformed service to civilian life."

The number of veterans involuntarily separated after having been diagnosed with a mental health condition is not known, as legal documents are kept at the local command level and it would be difficult to cross reference with a service member's diagnosis, McNally said. However, service members who believe this change in policy may affect their separation characterization or disposition can file a petition for relief through the Board for Correction of Naval Records, he said.

Marine officials did not respond to questions by press time about how many active-duty Marines have a diagnosed mental health condition, and how many have been involuntary separated.

The Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center reported that more than 46,000 sailors and 49,000 Marines have been diagnosed with TBI since 2000. Most diagnoses are for a mild form of TBI known as a concussion. The National Center for PTSD estimates that between 11 and 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer PTSD in a given year.

 

Mabus signed the new policy during a visit to the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the NYU Langone Medical Center, a Cohen Veterans Network clinic in New York. The network describes its mission as striving “to improve the quality of life for veterans and their families, including Guard and Reserve, by working to strengthen mental health outcomes and complement existing support, with a particular focus on post-traumatic stress.”

Veteran groups who have advocated this change quickly applauded the secretary’s decision.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a press release that “Mabus and the Navy displayed outstanding leadership today with their expanded recognition of the invisible wounds of war."

"The Department of the Navy is setting the pace for other service branches," he said. "We encourage the Army and Air Force to follow the Navy’s lead by honoring the service of the men and women in uniform whose separation is a result of PTSD/TBI.”

IAVA, which boasts 425,000 members, calls itself the largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization representing post-9/11 veterans and their families. It has long recommended such a change, and applauded two critical changes brought by the new policy.

First, it standardizes the level by which separation decisions are made. Second, it ensures standardization concerning administrative separations when the service member has a ratable medical condition that may have been a contributing factor. This is especially beneficial as “reviewing and overturning erroneous discharges after separation has proven to be tedious and complicated.”

Similarly, Vietnam Veterans of America said it is “encouraged” by the policy change and has written Defense Secretary Ash Cater, Army Secretary Eric Fanning, and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James urging them to follow suit.

“This is a good first step, however it is just one of many the Navy must take to protect its ill and injured sailors and Marines from receiving less-than-honorable discharges,” John Rowan, national president, said in a release. “This new directive is a welcome departure from previous Navy regulations, which allowed commanders to abruptly terminate sailors and Marines for alleged acts of misconduct, without consideration or regard for the mental health of the veteran.”

Rowan went on to describe what he called “bad-paper discharges,” and how such discharges prevents the veteran from being able to seek care at the VA, forces the veteran into “a broken appeals process that typically takes years to navigate” and has a pattern of denying honorable discharges even when provided convincing medical evidence.

“Bad paper is for life, forever stigmatizing the veteran,” he said.

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