For at least two decades, injured military service members have been "wrongfully discharged by the Department of Defense, and stripped of their benefits, honors, and dignity," according to Uniformed Services Justice & Advocacy Group (USJAG). Those individuals' injuries come in many forms, including traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), missing limbs, burns, and more.
While coping with these injuries, some choose to self-medicate; some even act out criminally. But instead of being helped with their problems or processed for medical retirement, many are simply chaptered out of the military for these minor infractions.
American Family News spoke to Air Force Col. (ret.) Rob Maness, a former bomber squadron commander who served the U.S. military for over 30 years. Prior to his retirement from active duty in 2011, Maness held a wing commander position that granted him court-martial authority. He tells AFN he has seen too many discharges to count.
"Packages would show up on my desk once a week or so," he said, adding that it's a process he took very seriously. "It was time-consuming, but I prioritized my time intentionally – because we're talking about people and their dignity."
However, Maness admits, it's reasonable to assume that a lot of commanders don't take the time they should to thoroughly review each individual file.
"It takes a lot of effort to get the facts straight, because every one of these cases is about a human being, their interactions, their actions, their decisions, the people involved in the incident or incidents, and more," he explains.
"One of the things that I thought would have been useful was the oversight of the process before it got to me," Maness suggests. "Oftentimes, unit commanders are the ones who are faced with the challenges these packages encounter going forward."
It's time to take the time
Nic Gray, a former client of USJAG, is now its CEO. He says because those making the final determination often don't devote the time and energy necessary to take the individual into account, the negative impact of a discharge can be far-reaching.
"The challenge, and quite frankly the problem with the discharge process is unqualified individuals make judgment calls requiring expertise they do not possess, resulting in fraudulent separations," he tells AFN. "This primarily pertains to mid-level commanders rather than commanding generals with court-martial authority."
Gray continues: "Since the Global War on Terrorism [GWOT] began in 2001, there have been hundreds of thousands of fraudulent separations, and every single one has had a negative impact on communities across the United States.
"One could view this problem as the root cause of the many issues within the veteran community," he explains. "It begins with how injured active-duty service members are treated before leaving the military."
Gray argues that having a third-party oversight body ensures that policy and procedure are followed regarding the discharge process of injured active-duty service members. "That's the crux of the issue in that guardrails are in place, but they're not being followed," he contends.
The USJAG leader likens it to "having the arresting police officer act as the judge and jury."
He explains his analogy: "There is no accountability – and the result is devastating in most cases, affecting the injured service members, their families, and the communities in which they live."
Oversight of process needed
In addition to senior commanders holding other commanders accountable for "doing their due diligence," Maness agrees with some of Gray's points.
"There could be an opportunity for USJAG to propose, and see if they can introduce into legislation, some type of third-party oversight into the process of discharging injured service members," he suggests. "This would undoubtedly help ensure the people in the process are being treated by the process as the people they are: volunteers who serve their country in the U.S. military."
But regardless the reason for discharge, Maness says those involved in administering the process need to be operating with honor and dignity for everybody involved.
"Injured service members should not end up with a bad taste in their mouth for serving the country; or worse, being a burden on the community instead of being a valued member of the community when they're no longer in uniform," he emphasizes.
To reduce the number of abusive discharges in the military, Maness argues for "a focused effort of supervision of the process by the commanders in addition to exploring this idea of third-party oversight on the process itself."