Screening process falls under scrutiny

By Tom Philpott: PNT columnist

Under pressure from Congress and following the Army’s lead, the Department of Defense has imposed a more rigorous screening process on the services for separating troubled members due to “personality disorder.”

The intent is to ensure that, in the future, no members who suffer from wartime stress get tagged with having a pre-existing personality disorder that leaves them ineligible for service disability compensation.

Since the attacks of 9/11, more than 22,600 service members have been discharged for personality disorder. Nearly 3,400 of them, or 15 percent, had served in combat or imminent danger zones.

Advocates for these veterans contend at least some of them were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury but it was easier and less costly to separate them for personality disorder.

By definition, personality disorders existed before a member entered service so they do not deem a service-related disability rating. A disability rating of 30 percent or higher, which most PTSD sufferers receive, can mean lifelong access to military health care and on-base shopping.

Over the last 18 months, lawmakers and advocates for veterans have criticized Defense and service officials for relying too often on personality disorder separations to release members who deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan or other another areas of tension in the Global War on Terrorism.

A revised DoD instruction (No. 1332.14), which took effect without public announcement on Aug. 28, responds to that criticism. It only allows separation for personality disorder for members currently or formerly deployed to an imminent danger areas if: 1) the diagnosis by a psychiatrist or a PhD-level psychologist is corroborated by a peer or higher-level mental health professional, 2) if the diagnosis is endorsed by the surgeon general of the service, and 3) if the diagnosis too into account a possible tie or “co-morbidity” with symptoms of PTSD or war-related mental injury or illness.

Sam Retherford, director of officer and enlisted personnel management in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said adding “rigor and discipline” to the process when separating deployed members for personality disorder is “very important,” considering what is at stake for the member.

Last year several congressional hearings focused on overuse of personality disorder separation after “The Nation” magazine exposed apparent abuses in a March 2007 article. It described the experience of Army Specialist Jon Town.