A group of 12 U.S. senators, led by Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., is calling for the Army inspector general to investigate the discharges of tens of thousands of service members diagnosed with mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries.
The formal letter sent to top Army officials Eric Fanning and Gen. Mark A. Milley was motivated by last week's "Missed Treatment" investigation by NPR's Daniel Zwerdling and Colorado Public Radio's Michael de Yoanna, which revealed that since January 2009, the Army has separated 22,000 soldiers for misconduct after they returned from Iraq and Afghanistan and were diagnosed with mental health problems such as PTSD or TBI. As a result, many of those soldiers won't receive benefits or have access to the treatment they need.
"I mean the fact that there are 22,000 individuals who had a diagnosis who were then discharged, really suggests that we're only looking at the tip of the iceberg," Murphy tells NPR.
The senators say this violates the intent of a 2009 law that Congress passed to ensure troops who returned from wars with mental health disorders were not discarded without being evaluated.
"I'm not arguing, nor are my colleagues arguing, that you should keep in the military someone who has committed a [driving under the influence] or someone who has committed another serious crime," Murphy says. "We're arguing that you should medically discharge these individuals if that active misconduct is a manifestation of the disability, so they can continue to get help."
In the letter — also signed by Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., Ed Markey, D-Mass., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Gary Peters, D-Mich., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Tim Kaine, D-Va. — the senators write:
"We are concerned that it may be easier to discharge service members for minor misconduct — possibly related to mental health issues — than to evaluate them for conditions that may warrant a medical discharge."
The Army confirmed receipt of the letter and "will respond accordingly," says Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman.
The NPR/CPR investigation highlighted the cases of soldiers like Eric James, a sniper who served two tours in Iraq and who secretly recorded 20 hours of conversations with Army therapists and officials at Fort Carson. The Army said it was going to separate him for misconduct on a 2-year-old driving under the influence charge.
A formal investigation in February ordered by the Army's surgeon general found that James was being mistreated and two of James' therapists were reprimanded. James was then given a medical retirement with honor and full benefits.
But that same investigation concluded there wasn't a "systemic " problem at Fort Carson.
The NPR/CPR investigation found that the Army never contacted the nine other soldiers whose cases were brought to the attention of Army officials at the same time as James' case.
An Army spokeswoman confirmed that investigators did not get in touch with any of those soldiers but said investigators reviewed the soldiers' medical records, which convinced them the troops had received proper treatment.
Read NPR's full reporting on this story here, and see the full letter here.
NPR's Jessica Pupovac contributed reporting to this story.