Injured Combat Veterans Are Being Stripped of Their Medical Benefits

How the U.S. Army is failing some of its wounded warriors.
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Reuters

A powerful series in The Gazette, a newspaper in Colorado Springs, Colorado, exposes the shameful mistreatment of some U.S. veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. These soldiers suffered traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. As their tours abroad ended, they returned to bases in the U.S., where their injuries affected their ability to maintain discipline. They committed small infractions. Over time, these demerits added up. They were discharged for misconduct. 

As a result, they lost their medical benefits for life.

Unable to afford treatment for the combat injuries they sustained, many wound up taking on debt in emergency rooms or living on the street without any treatment at all. 

Their plight is a moral outrage and a public health disaster. The newspaper persuasively argues that more soldiers are being discharged for misconduct than at any time in recent history, and that combat veterans are most likely to be affected. "A Gazette investigation based on data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act shows the annual number of misconduct discharges is up more than 25 percent Army-wide since 2009, mirroring the rise in wounded," the newspaper reports. "At the eight Army posts that house most of the service's combat units, including Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, misconduct discharges have surged 67 percent. All told, more than 76,000 soldiers have been kicked out of the Army since 2006."

The fate of those soldiers? They end up "in hospitals and homeless shelters, abandoned trailers and ratty apartments, working in gas fields and at the McDonald's counter. The Army does not track how many... were kicked out with combat wounds."

Often the offenses aren't even serious. "The Gazette found troops cut loose for small offenses that the Army acknowledges can be symptoms of TBI and PTSD. Some soldiers missed formation a handful of times or smoked marijuana once. Some were discharged for showing up late or missing appointments." And then there's the detail that is perhaps the most jaw-dropping in the story: "Some tested positive once for drugs, then were deployed to combat zones because the Army needed the troops, only to be discharged for the drug offense when they returned." Then again, on another occasion, an infantry soldier who served two tours of duty abroad "was targeted for discharge after missing three doctor appointments because he had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital for being suicidal." There's enough depravity on display that choosing the worst example is difficult.

The Gazette article has much more depth than I can convey here. 

But before I close, it's worth noting one of the individual stories the newspaper chose to illustrate the broader phenomenon. The subject is Army veteran Kash Alvaro, who enlisted at age 18. His whole story is worth reading. Some highlights:

  • "In Afghanistan in 2009, he was hit by multiple bomb blasts, including one that threw him across a road like a lawn dart. Sophisticated armor helped him escape with just bruises, but the blasts battered his brain. Ever since, he has been hit with heart spasms and seizures."
  • "Soon after coming home, Alvaro was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for dedication to duty and selfless service..."
  • "Army doctors diagnosed Alvaro with PTSD and TBI..."
  • "At Fort Carson, the damaged soldier racked up punishments for being late to formation, missing appointments, getting in an argument and not showing up for work."
  • "His battalion put him in jail, then threw him out of the Army with an other-than honorable discharge that stripped him of veterans benefits."
  • "He was sent packing without even the medicine to stop his convulsions."
  • "Alvaro soon became homeless. He started relying on the ER for care — regaining consciousness at the hospital, getting anti-seizure drugs, and being released onto the streets."

Then this scene:

In January, friends wheeled Alvaro into a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Denver and pleaded for help, but hospital staff said his other-than-honorable discharge barred him from care, handed him the phone numbers for local homeless shelters and wheeled him out.

Even if that is only part of this ex-soldier's story, at the very least, you have a man who fought for his country, and who now has serious medical problems that are plausibly related to his time in combat. Why would we take away his health benefits?

The necessary reform seems straightforward enough: if you serve in combat, medical benefits ought to be guaranteed even if you're other-than-honorably discharged. At worst, we'll end up treating some combat veterans whose problems are unrelated. Isn't it in our interest to help them live healthily anyway? Or would we rather have some number of trained fighters suffering mental illness on the streets?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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