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Rep. Smith: Military leaders must improve response to soldiers in mental health crisis

The chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee is calling for expanded mental health training for military commanders in response to a KING 5 investigation.

The chairman of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee is calling for expanded mental health training for military commanders in response to a KING 5 investigation, which found Army leaders punished and booted local soldiers who struggled to deal with mental wounds from combat.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash) said the findings in KING 5's multi-part investigation "No Thank You For Your Serviceare concerning. He said the culture embraced by military leaders needs to change in order to better support the service members who are living with behavioral health conditions as a result of their military career.

"There are some command structures who have the right people in charge who know how to treat this, but too many don't," Smith said.

The KING 5 investigation, which began in 2018, uncovered cases where soldiers, who were diagnosed with service-related PTSD, were punished and kicked out of the military for misconduct related to their PTSD. Prior to getting kicked out, the soldiers were on a track to get out of the military for medical reasons. But as a result of their other-than-honorable discharge status, the veterans are not automatically eligible for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs benefits, including health care.

The reporting also revealed the Army's safeguards intended to protect soldiers from those situations are not always effective, according to whistleblowers at Madigan Army Medical Center and military medical records reviewed by KING 5.  

To date, the Army has declined requests for interviews. 

The Madigan whistleblowers said Army leaders routinely ignore the advice of military medical experts, and they said the Army has a pattern of punishing soldiers who need help.  

Smith said he agrees with those medical professionals. He said he and his staff regularly interact with people in the same situations as the veterans included in KING 5's investigation.

"For every couple that come to you, several hundred come to me. So I am aware of it," he said."(Commanders) are not adequately addressing mental issues. Too often they're dismissing them as conduct problems, and the service members are being punished for it when they shouldn't be. There is no question, and that needs to be addressed."

WATCH: Whistleblowers say Army ignoring advice of medical experts (November 2018 Investigation)

Each of the military services are required by law to assess the impact of a service member's PTSD or TBI diagnosis before separating them for misconduct.

The U.S. military gives its commanding generals the authority to decide how a service member will be discharged, regardless if they've been diagnosed with a medical condition, such as PTSD. That official is supposed to review and consider the soldier's entire military history, including his or her medical records, the results of medical separation screenings, and input from the service member's commanders. But even if a medical provider warns against a misconduct discharge, the military leader has the power to come to his or her own conclusion and overrule the expert.

WATCH: The Full Investigation -  No Thank You For Your Service 

Currently, the Department of Defense does not require military services to train its officers on PTSD. It's up to each military branch to set its own mental health training requirements for officers. The Army requires all service members, including officers, to receive training on identifying mild TBI symptoms.

"The question is why did the commander overrule what the medical professional said should should be done?" Smith said. "They have not embraced an understanding of how traumatic brain injury, PTSD, mental health issues affect the people they are leading."

Credit: Adam Smith
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Washington) is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the ranking member of the House Armed Services committee, wrote in a statement that he's aware of the problem identified in KING 5's investigation. He said there is a need for oversight, and he's calling for the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel to hold a hearing on military healthcare, where this issue could be addressed.

Other members of Congress have also called for a hearing on military healthcare, including Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Mississippi) and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming). Both serve on the House Subcommittee on Military Personnel. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-California), the chairwoman of the subcommittee, could not be reached for comment.

The chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee did not respond to an interview request.  

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