Chris Murphy: How our country is leaving veterans with mental health injuries behind

Connecticut Post

If a solider is injured in war fighting for the United States, our country’s commitment to help them recover from an injury should be absolute.

One percent of Americans fight to protect the rest of us, and when we leave them out in the cold, without proper care for their battle wounds, we abandon the sacred commitment we made to them when they signed up to fight.

Right now, tens of thousands of combat veterans who risked their lives for our country and were injured in the line of duty are being denied medical and mental health care.

These are veterans who suffer from mental health issues or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of their service, and who’ve acted out — gone AWOL for a short period of time or committed small acts of misbehavior — as a result of their diagnosis.

Because of this misconduct, which occurred because of their injury, they are given what’s called an other-than-honorable — or “bad paper” — discharge from the military.

Their misconduct wasn’t serious enough to receive a dishonorable discharge, but this “bad paper” discharge means that the service member is made ineligible for medical services from the Veterans Administration (VA).

It creates a no-win situation for veterans: they get injured in war, act out because of their injury, and then are refused help to recover from their injury.

This issue hits close to home.

Jasper Farmer, a Norwalk resident and Vietnam veteran, recently shared his story with me.

Jasper served in the Marines during the Vietnam War. He returned to Camp Lejeune over a year later, clearly struggling with PTSD.

Because of conduct resulting from his diagnosis, he was given a bad paper discharge.

For the next forty years, he was denied care at the VA, preventing him from adequately addressing his war injury.

Luckily, Jasper found the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC). Their staff fights tirelessly on behalf of veterans, and finally this past April, with the help of CVLC, Jasper gained access to VA health care.

But it shouldn’t have taken smart lawyers and almost four decades to right this wrong.

Now, I’m trying to right this grievous wrong for other veterans. I’ve introduced the Honor Our Commitment Act in the Senate, and worked with Congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas to do the same in the House of Representatives.

Our bill is pretty simple.

It says that any combat veteran who has received an other-than-honorable discharge because of conduct caused by his or her service-connected mental health issues should be able to get mental health treatment at the VA.

Our bill is so important because the scope of this problem is disturbingly large. Between 2011 and 2015 alone, over 13,000 veterans were denied care because of bad paper discharges.

This is a moral outrage. Veteran suicide has become an epidemic — on average, a veteran kills him or herself almost every hour — and veterans who aren’t receiving care from the VA have a much higher risk of taking their own life.

Why on earth would we refuse to give mental health care to veterans who are at greatest risk of taking their own lives?

Because of my efforts and the work of many others, the VA finally acknowledged that this is a problem, and recently changed their policy to allow veterans with bad paper discharges to access 90 days of emergency care.

But 90 days is far from adequate. We shouldn’t place arbitrary limits on the care provided to veterans in need.

That’s why it’s so critical that Congress passes my Honor Our Commitment into law.

I’m making progress on my bill. Earlier this year, I forced a vote on the Honor Our Commitment Act in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Republicans joined Democrats to attach my bill to the 2018 Veterans Administration budget.

The budget hasn’t yet been voted on by the entire Senate, so I will keep fighting until this bill is signed into law.

When young men and women sign up to fight for this country, we make a sacred agreement with each and every one of them.

If they get injured during battle, their country needs to make sure they have access to enough health care to heal their wounds. We are violating this promise to thousands of veterans today, and we shouldn’t let any more time pass before we right this wrong.