WASHINGTON – After investigations revealed that the U.S. Department of Defense has issued tens of thousands of Other-Than-Honorable (OTH) discharges to veterans with mental health and behavioral health diagnoses, U.S. Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) introduced new legislation – called the Honor Our Commitment Act of 2017 – to require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide mental health and behavioral health services to former combat veterans who received OTH or Bad Paper discharges. Up until recently, the VA denied it had the legal authority to provide any care to these veterans. In addition, the VA has failed to explain to Congress whether it intends to provide full mental and behavioral health care or just basic crisis and suicide prevention assistance to these at-risk veterans. The Honor Our Commitment Act will clarify and expand existing law to ensure that combat veterans maintain access to critical mental health care and behavioral health care to treat war-time injuries.
U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) are original cosponsors of the Honor Our Commitment Act. U.S. Representatives Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and Mike Bost (R-Ill.) introduced the legislation in the House.
“Both the Department of Defense and the VA have mistreated returning service members suffering from mental health disorders occurring as a result of their service to our country. This bill will make sure that if you fight for the United States, your country will take care of you when you get home,” said Murphy. “These veterans have risked their lives for our country. They shouldn’t be cut off from getting the care and treatment they deserve.”
“No veteran should be turned away from receiving life-saving mental health care,” said Tester. “This bill does right by our troops and veterans who have sacrificed the most, and it rights the wrongs that have isolated thousands of veterans from the care they earned.”
“For years, we have worked to break through bureaucracy to ensure mental and behavioral health care is more easily available to veterans and servicemembers,” Bennet said. “Currently, the system to access care is overly cumbersome. This bill expands access to mental and behavioral health care to those with other-than-honorable discharges in need of these critical services, and is an important step in clarifying the process for eligibility and treatment.”
A National Public Radio and Colorado Public Radio investigation revealed that the U.S. Army has, since 2009, wrongfully dismissed more than 22,000 soldiers for misconduct after they returned from deployment and were diagnosed with mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) or traumatic brain injuries (TBI). The forceful separation of soldiers with mental health disorders denies these men and women much-needed treatments, and may even discourage other service members from seeking the medical treatment they need.
As co-author of the recently passed Mental Health Reform Act, Murphy has led Senate efforts to push the VA to change their policies and ensure that discharged veterans with mental illness continue to receive the critical benefits and mental health care they need. For over a year, Murphy has made the case to the VA that they could already provide mental health benefits to service members with OTH discharges. In 2015, he led 11 other senators in calling on the Pentagon to conduct a full U.S. Army Inspector General investigation into the thousands of less than honorable discharges, and successfully convinced the Army to commit to reforming its policies. Last week, Murphy joined Tester and a group of other senators in calling on the VA to more clearly define the steps they will take to begin providing mental health services and other VA benefits to OTH discharged veterans.