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On Capitol Hill today, testimony that might sound like semantics. But to service people wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, the difference between personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is important indeed. Thousands of military personnel diagnosed with personality disorder instead of PTSD have been discharged without the medical benefits to help them recover.
NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports on today's hearing.
ANDREA SEABROOK: In October of 2004, a young Army soldier named Jonathan Town was delivering the mail at his base in Ramadi, Iraq, when it came under fire.
JONATHAN TOWN: While running for shelter in my S-20 shop's office, a 107-millimeter rocket exploded three feet above my head, leaving me unconscious on the ground, with a severe concussion, shrapnel in my neck, and blood pouring from my ears.
SEABROOK: Town was rushed to the medical unit, treated for his wounds, and given the day to rest. He returned to duty the next day.
TOWN: Two months later, I was awarded a Purple Heart for my injuries I suffered on that traumatic day in October. This is when everything started to go downhill healthwise for me. Throughout the next nine months, while continuing to serve my country, I battled severe non-stop headaches, bleeding from my ears and insomnia.
SEABROOK: Despite the fact that Town hadn't had these symptoms before and had passed psychological screenings when he enlisted and re-enlisted in the Army, Town was diagnosed with what Army doctors called a pre-existing personality disorder. So when Town was discharged, he got no access to medical care and no disability benefits.
Another veteran, Paul Sullivan, who runs an organization called Veterans for Common Sense, says there are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of cases like Town's. Sullivan's group filed suit against the Department of Defense this week with one goal in mind.
PAUL SULLIVAN: If a service member goes to war and they come back, wounded, injured, ill, and they need medical care, the country has an obligation, social contract, to provide that care.
SEABROOK: Sullivan says it shouldn't take dozens of pages of claims and months of bureaucratic process for wounded veterans to get medical care. The journalist who originally broke Jonathan Town's story also testified today. His name is Joshua Kors.
Kors told the lawmakers that he's been told by Army insiders that doctors are pressured to make these diagnoses, sometimes to save the Army money. That assertion raised the ire of Indiana Republican Steve Buyer who demanded that Kors name his sources. When he wouldn't, Buyer raged, saying, this is exactly the problem with taking congressional testimony from journalists.
STEVE BUYER: They get to speak in generalities as the major premise, and we don't know - with regard to the credibility or embellishments, they get to use innuendo, and the results then...
SEABROOK: At this point, Sullivan broke in...
BUYER: ...reckless indictments.
SULLIVAN: Sounds very much like a congressman I know, too.
BUYER: Well, the mirror looks pretty good.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
SEABROOK: Jonathan Town asked the Veteran Administration to review his case five times. But it was only after the news stories of his case came to light that the V.A. did.
They changed his diagnosis to PTSD, and awarded him 100 percent disability benefits and medical care. Committee Chair Bob Filner of California said the problem is the many thousands of other veterans whose cases are not in the media spotlight.
BOB FILNER: The system is leading to this situation. I have been told by a doctor, Mr. Buyer - and I'm not going to reveal his name here because he thought he'd be fired - that he was told by his commanders to diagnose people with PTSD and get them out. I asked him to testify. He was fearful of that.
SEABROOK: Filner promised more work on this matter and perhaps legislation to give veterans the ability to challenge their mental health diagnosis when they return from war.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.