Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta revealed at a June 13 congressional hearing that he has ordered a review of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) cases handled by the military since 2001. The U.S. Army began such a review last month, after an investigation at the Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Wash., revealed that hundreds of soldiers with PTSD were misdiagnosed or accused of faking their symptoms.
Panetta broke the news while being questioned by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing. Murray heard complaints last fall from soldiers who said their PTSD diagnoses had been purposely changed to lesser maladies. She spurred the Army to launch its review and found out about Panetta’s decision after telling him, "this is not just an Army disability evaluation system. This is a joint Department of Defense and VA program (that) covers all of the services."
American Legion National Commander Fang A. Wong said that Panetta’s decision will provide a much-needed expansion of the Army’s initiative. "We don’t want our servicemembers being denied care and benefits because someone in the DoD system says they have personality disorders or some other misdiagnosis, just to save some money," said Wong, referring to a May 16 story in the New York Times that mentioned an internal Army memo that came to light last February. The memo quoted a Madigan doctor who said that Army clinicians needed to be "good stewards" of taxpayer dollars, and that a servicemember could collect up to $1.5 million in disability benefits if diagnosed with PTSD.
"We stand behind Secretary Panetta’s prudent decision to go through every PTSD case in all branches of the military and reassess the decisions to make sure they were made properly – not as cost-cutting measures," Wong said. "And we also want to thank Sen. Murray for her hard work and leadership on this critical issue. Without her persistence, these reviews might never have happened."
During the hearing, Murray said the Pentagon and VA "are losing the battle on mental and behavioral health conditions that are confronting a lot of our servicemembers" and noted that, on average, military suicides have been occurring once a day in 2012.
Wong said he agreed with Murray that, five years after the health-care scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, DoD has been slow in its response. "Secretary Panetta said that part of the problem is bureaucratic, that he’s in charge of a very big bureaucracy," Wong said. "We need to find a way to cut through all of that and make it clear to DoD’s leadership that our troops who suffer from PTSD need to be helped as quickly as possible. Issue an order, replace incompetent people, eliminate some positions. Whatever it takes, DoD should do it now," he said.
In October 2010, The American Legion formed the Ad Hoc Committee on Traumatic Brain Injury/PTSD. Over the course of nearly two years, the committee heard from various experts – military, federal and civilian – in the field of mental health, as well as servicemembers. Viable alternative treatments for both TBI and PTSD were discussed, as well as improved screening, research, diagnosis and treatment for both conditions. The committee prepared a list of recommendations for DoD and VA that are being reviewed by Legion leadership.