This week there is going to be a vote on the defense bill. The president has threatened to veto the bill because of some pork related to the engine in the joint strike fighter. There are also two other "add-ons" to the bill that could make a huge difference in people's lives. One is finally getting rid of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the relic of the Clinton administration's compromise on gays in the military. Almost as many people were discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" as during the old days of the witch hunts.
The other add-on to the defense bill is the Dream Act, where children of the undocumented who have grown up in the United States have an opportunity to become full members of our society as citizens.
These are both important issues, and we now understand that given recruitment issues in the military, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell's" time has passed. Waivers have been granted for potential recruits who have been convicted of a felony; they are allowed to serve openly, but gay people who have led stellar lives are not. This is a crazy policy.
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This week an even crazier problem was highlighted at a hearing in the House of Representative's Committee on Veteran's Affairs. Chairman Bob Filner's panel asked for testimony regarding the practice of discharging soldiers who have personality disorders and then not paying them for service-related disabilities such as traumatic brain injury and verifiable cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Some of the testimony was horrifying. Soldiers who had passed the initial screening and were admitted to the military were then discharged after serving in battle situations. The reason being that they had a "pre-existing" personality disorder and therefore were not entitled to benefits.
One soldier, Sgt. Chuck Luther, is a prime example of how crazy and unfair this "policy" has become. According to the testimony, Luther was in Iraq when a mortar blast threw him to the ground. He developed severe migraine headaches and sought help. This caused him to often lose vision in one eye. The military doctors told him that that this blindness was due to a pre-existing personality disorder. Luther rejected that diagnosis and was held in a closet for a month. When he tried to escape, he was held down, given medication and sent back to the closet.
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Finally, after one month he signed a statement saying he was willing to be discharged for his "personality disorder." He got back stateside, found out he would not get medical care or any benefits and that he was going to have to pay back part of his signing bonus. This was after having served almost 12 years in the service.
His case of being locked in a closet is extreme, but the number of service members who have been "pressed" into signing these personality disorder discharges is a whopping 22,600 soldiers. Doctors who have been interviewed have said that they were encouraged by higher ups to misdiagnose disorders so that there would be a reduction in benefits paid. Too often these soldiers are too shocked coming back from the war theater to understand their rights or to have a voice that could get their circumstances changed.
The other issue with soldiers who have seen action is that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can often manifest itself as a personality disorder. If the "policy" is to discharge members of the service who have had a pre-existing personality disorder, but really have PTSD, it is illegal and clearly unfair. It is also un-American. We have a contract with our soldiers. They serve, and the American people agree to take care of those that have become injured. It is a sacred contract that should not be broken because the Pentagon wants to save money.
The war on terror has cost our country trillions of dollars. The costs have not just been in dollars but in cases such as Chuck Luther's. The Pentagon has announced many cost-saving measures, but to save money on soldiers who have served honorably is a crime. Luther, to his credit, has begun a group called "Soldier's Advocacy Group for Disposable Warriors." It is time to hold both Congress and the Pentagon responsible for bad decisions. Save money by ending the discharges under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Save money by dumping the extra costs of the joint strike fighter, and take care of the Americans who have put their lives on the line for all of us.