After the U.S. withdrew troops from Iraq in 2011, thousands of combat troops were expelled from the force with less than honorable discharges as the military came under pressure to downsize quickly. This left a large number of veterans – including many kicked out for minor infractions – without access to health care and other benefits that are granted to service members who leave the armed forces with honorable discharges.
After being cut off from care and benefits, many turned to drugs and painkillers, often to relieve physical pain and mental distress that resulted from combat. Some wound up homeless. Others killed themselves.
Last week, the Department of Veterans Affairs took an important, belated step to protect tens of thousands of former service members who risked their lives in war zones. Starting this summer, the agency decided, it will provide emergency mental health care to some veterans who received less than honorable discharges.
“Our goal is simple: to save lives,” David Shulkin, the secretary of Veterans Affairs, said Tuesday as he announced the change in policy during testimony before the House Veterans Affairs Committee. “Veterans who are in crisis should receive help immediately.”
There are roughly 500,000 veterans with less than honorable discharges, including more than 100,000 who left the service during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The government does not know what percentage of these veterans have acute mental health problems, but it became apparent after the Iraq draw-down that many were struggling.
“What they did was something very unprecedented,” Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who served in the Army and the , said in an interview Friday. “Here are people who have come back from war and are having difficulty. And you strip all support from them and throw them out of the military.”
Since 2009, the military has discharged at least 22,000 combat veterans who had mental health problems or traumatic brain injuries for alleged misconduct, according to Coffman’s office. The misconduct ranges from serious felonies to minor administrative violations.
Coffman has spent years trying to convince other lawmakers and the Department of Veterans Affairs that the government needs to do a lot more to prevent veteran suicides and homelessness. Some efforts have been successful, but the crisis remains acute. Last year, 20 veterans per day on average committed suicide, according to the VA. Tens of thousands of veterans sleep on the streets on any given night.
The new policy will allow veterans with less than honorable discharges who can attribute their struggles to service-related health problems, including traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress, to seek care at a VA emergency room or by calling the Veterans Crisis Line. Those who were expelled with dishonorable discharges will remain ineligible for these services.
Shulkin, who served as undersecretary of Veterans Affairs under President Barack Obama, has been considering this change in policy for roughly a year, and he credited Coffman for pushing him to take action.
Coffman introduced a bill last month that would make the policy permanent. The legislation would also require the government to commission an independent study to determine whether veterans who receive care are less likely to commit suicide. Having a clearer understanding of this population is a needed step. But there’s still a long way to go to help wounded men and women who went to war.