File photo
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (File photo)

A public radio exposé in Ft. Carson, Colorado, has prompted a Connecticut senator to lead the call for a Pentagon investigation into the wrongful discharge of service members with mental health disorders amid evidence of systemic injustice.

According to National Public Radio and Colorado Public Radio, 22,000 Army members with diagnosed mental health problems have been “separated” for “misconduct” since 2009. The statistics were provided through the Freedom of Information Act.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., was joined by 11 Democratic senators – including U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal – in his letter to U.S. Army leadership.  The senators asked for a U.S. Army Inspector General investigation into alleged violations of “the intent” of a 2009 federal law governing the discharge of those whose wartime service resulted in traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“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 senators wrote.

The 2009 law states that no service member can be discharged under any conditions other than honorable until a medical evaluation has looked into whether the alleged misconduct is related to post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury incurred while deployed. The Army must take the medical findings into account when deciding what kind of discharge to apply.

According to the Congressional Research Service, separating members of the military without an honorable discharge could affect access to service-connected disability compensation, health care, education assistance, non-service-connected pension, burial benefits, housing benefits, and vocational rehabilitation, among others.

“Soldiers who deploy are at an increased risk for mental health issues and the forceful separation of service members post-deployment only further denies treatment and support at a critical moment in any soldier’s life,” the senators wrote. “Additionally, fear of dismissal may discourage service members from seeking the medical treatment they require.”

The public radio investigation looked into the cases of 10 soldiers at Ft. Carson, Colo., who claimed they were kicked out of the Army instead of receiving what the radio report described as “more intensive treatment or a medical retirement on the grounds that they have persistent mental health problems.”

An Army investigation into the case of one of those soldiers at Ft. Carson found evidence of mistreatment and two therapists were reprimanded, according to NPR. The radio station quoted a top Army official in charge of mental health issues as saying “there is no systemic attempt” to dismiss soldiers with mental problems on the grounds of misconduct.

The official, Lt. Col. Chris Ivany, told NPR that soldiers might be dismissed for misconduct if a mental health disorder or traumatic brain injury “was not severe” enough to affect their judgment or if the condition might have been severe in the past but “subsequently improved” before the misconduct occurred. He also cited misdiagnosis as another factor.

Murphy’s outreach to the Pentagon is the latest in his effort to address deficiencies in the nation’s mental health system. This summer he introduced the Mental Health Reform Act along with U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-LA.