Veteran Care Under Review as More Than 22,000 Are Discharged With 'Pre-Existing' Personality Disorder, Which Some Say Developed During War
by BOB WOODRUFF, JAMES HILL, JAIME HENNESSEY and JOSHUA KORS
Left, Army Spc. Jonathan Town went from earning a Purple Heart to challenging the Veterans Administration to maintain his benefit claims. (ABC News)
Army Spc. Jonathan Town is back home in Ohio now, but still very much at war.
"When you see bits and pieces of actual people or people bleeding to death or anything, it's very unsettling. It's something you'll never be able to forget. Period," Town told ABC News' Bob Woodruff.
Since his discharge in 2006, Town has not only dealt with the emotional scars of war, but he has also found himself at the center of a national debate on mental health care for veterans as a crowd as diverse as singer Dave Matthews and members of Congress has questioned how 22,000 veterans were diagnosed and discharged since 2001.
In Town's case, the discharge came two years after he was injured in an attack. In the fall of 2004, a 107 mm rocket ripped through his unit's headquarters in Ramadi, exploding two feet above Town's head and knocking him unconscious…
The rocket blast left Town with hearing loss, headaches, memory problems, anxiety and insomnia. For his wounds, he was awarded the Purple Heart.
But when he returned to the states seeking treatment for those very wounds, the Army quickly discharged him, asserting his problems had been caused not by the war but by a personality disorder that predated his military career.
A Quick Way Out
It is known as a "Chapter 5-13" — "separation because of personality disorder." The Army defines it as a pre-existing "maladaptive pattern of behavior of long duration" that interferes with the soldier's ability to perform his duties.
In practical terms, this diagnosis means the personality disorder existed before military service, and therefore medical care and disability payments are not the military's responsibility. But some veterans and veterans' advocates have been vocal in their belief that personality disorder is being misdiagnosed in combat veterans.
"A significant percentage of the ones who are discharged with personality disorder truly have it, but there is another percentage that are put out simply to eliminate them from military service. … It's done maliciously or as some sort of a policy," said Russell K. Terry, founder of the veterans' advocacy organization, Iraq War Veterans Organization.
Since 2001, more than 22,000 servicemen and women from all branches of the military have been separated under the personality disorder discharge, according to figures provided by the Department of Defense.
The military explained the need for this kind of discharge. "Personality disorders that interfere with military service and are incompatible with the soldier staying in the unit, it is usually best for both the soldier and the unit for that soldier to be discharged," according to Col. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, a psychiatry consultant to the U.S. Army surgeon general.
Servicemen and women undergo mental and physical screenings when they enter the military and again before they deploy. "Either the military didn't see it or they ignored it," Terry said.
"We do histories and physicals on every recruit that comes in, but people may not always tell us everything," Ritchie said.
Donald Louis Schmidt of Chillicothe, Ill., was being treated for posttraumatic stress disorder after his second combat tour in Iraq. His commanders at Fort Carson later decided he was no longer mentally fit and discharged him with personality disorder.
"They just slapped me with that label to get me out quicker," Schmidt said. He said superiors told him "'Everything will be great. Peachy keen.' Well, it's not."
The discharge left Schmidt ineligible for disability pay and benefits. He was also required to return more than $10,000 of his $15,000 reenlistment bonus, but he said no one explained that to him until it was too late.
"If I didn't have family, I'd be living on the sidewalk," Schmidt said.
"It's not right that they would do this to him after him going to war for us," Schmidt's mother, Patrice Semtner-Myers, said. "They threw him away. They're done with him. He's no use to them anymore so they say, 'We're done. … Thanks for nothing.'"
Schmidt and Town say Army doctors misled them about the consequences of the personality disorder discharge. Town said he was told he would receive his benefits and it would be like a medical discharge, only quicker.
In the course of reporting this story, ABC News spoke with 20 Iraq War veterans who believe they were misdiagnosed with personality disorder.
A Marine who preferred not to be named said, "Most docs won't diagnose you with PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder] because the military has to treat you for the rest of your life."
After confrontations with his commander, Pfc. David Vann said a psychologist met with him for "10 minutes and said, 'I think you're lying about PTSD. … I think you have [personality disorder].'"
"If they cared about my well-being, they would have tried to fix it. The Army would rather … [sever] all the ties," Army Spc. William Wooldridge said.
The military would not comment on specific cases. Ritchi said, "If there was a mistake that was made, and we're a big organization, it is possible that mistakes were made, that we have the ability to go back and relook at that diagnosis and that discharge."
On the day he was discharged in the fall, Town met with Jeff Peskoff, a civilian employee in the personnel office at Fort Carson in Colorado, and learned he owed the Army $3,000 to repay his enlistment bonus.
"At some points it looked like he wanted to cry and at some point he looked like he wanted to rip my head off," Peskoff said.
Peskoff, who served 10 years in the Army, including a tour of Iraq, recently quit his job in disgust and is now speaking publicly for the first time.
"If you have a combat tour and you are getting labeled as a personality disorder, there is something wrong. "It's a lie," Peskoff said. "It's a quick way to get rid of that body and bring in another body. And it's a quick way to save money."
In the span of several months, Peskoff said he processed the personality disorder discharges of Schmidt, Town and hundreds of other combat veterans he believed were actually suffering physical and psychological trauma because of the war.
"They [Army officials] are basically washing their hands of them," Peskoff said.
Fort Carson officials declined to talk to ABC News about this story. The Government Accountability Office is currently investigating Fort Carson as part of a larger study of mental health services for veterans.
Fanfare: Issue Hits Dave Matthews Concert
Some prominent people took notice of Town's case after he was profiled in a Nation article earlier this year. Musician Dave Matthews spoke about him at a concert this spring at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
"Fans at the show started talking about it among themselves and then they started collecting money to support Jon Town," Matthews said.
The Dave Matthews Band collected 23,000 signatures on its fan site for a letter requesting that Congress and the Department of Defense look into the personality disorder discharges.
"They're forever changed," Matthews said. "We should look after these kids."
Town's story also inspired 31 senators, including four presidential candidates, to write to Defense Secretary Robert Gates calling for an investigation into the military's use of the personality disorder discharge.
"We are concerned over continuing reports from veterans' services organizations, the media and individual U.S. service personnel that personality disorder discharges have been implemented inappropriately and inconsistently," the letter said.
Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said, "We want to make this something that is widely understood and gain the momentum for necessary changes to the system."
Just today, six senators including Bond and Barack Obama, D- Illinois, introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would temporarily suspend personality disorder discharges for combat veterans until there is a comprehensive review of the current procedures.
Gates and other Defense Department officials declined to speak to ABC News, saying the issue was under review by the veteran care commission headed by Democrat Donna Shalala and Republican Bob Dole.
After all the recent attention focused on Town, the Department of Veterans Affairs recently began treating him and paying disability benefits.
Matthews was asked whether his actions had helped Town. "I think the push, the publicness of the whole thing had some bearing on that, and if it did, it's great that it did. But there are still a lot of other soldiers that need to have the same attention paid on their behalf."
At home in central Illinois, Donald Schmidt is waiting.
After this story aired on "World News" the Army contacted ABC News to say they offer a hotline for wounded soldiers and their families to report any concerns about patient care at 1-800-984-8523.
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