Editor’s Note: Frances Corrigan, a 2002 graduate of Olean High School, served in the Army Nurse Corps from 2007-11, with one deployment to Iraq in 2009, and was honorably discharged as a captain.
I consider myself lucky. I am a U.S. Army veteran. I was not injured while deployed. I did not get diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI).
I was not prescribed long-term opioid medications. I did not develop an addiction. Not every soldier can say that.
A problem for too many soldiers is that combat-related prescriptions can lead to addiction. But once their addictions become drug abuse, they can be discharged from the military with other than honorable discharges.
Now, here’s the kicker: These types of discharges take away Veterans Administration health care and benefits. Veterans with other than honorable discharges are also at risk for drug abuse and incarceration.
According to a recent study published in Military Medicine, 2.5 percent of all veterans leave the military with other than honorable discharges. There are 1.8 million active duty troops. Of those, 45,000 will eventually get an other than honorable discharge.
Of course, not all those discharges will be related to mental health (PTSD) or substance use. But from 2011-15, 16 percent (7,200 service members) were discharged for PTSD/TBI-related misconduct. Almost one out of every three veterans seeking treatment for drug addiction also has PTSD. They will fall through the gap.
This is disheartening because there are programs explicitly designed to help these veterans. Veterans’ treatment courts have been successful helping at-risk veterans seek drug treatment while avoiding criminal records. Unfortunately, at least some veterans’ courts will not let vets participate unless they are already eligible for VA care.
The veterans most in need do not have access.
With resources like veterans’ courts available, “veterans” and “vulnerability” should never be mentioned in the same sentence. But here we are — leaving thousands of veterans with addiction-related discharges vulnerable to homelessness, illicit drug use and suicide because of our current policies.
Are you OK with that? I’m not.
As a society, we should care. We should want to care. Veterans stood up for us. It is time to step up and support them — but how? It is easier said than done, but the idea is simple: fix policies and fund programs.
First, the Department of Defense needs to revamp the discharge process in prescription drug abuse cases. Officials should thoroughly evaluate what led to the discharge. If it was a service-connected addiction, an other than honorable discharge might not be appropriate.
We know Defense can create this process, because it has done it before. Within the last year, the department changed its policies for discharging vets with PTSD and sex assault victims. Veterans with other than honorable discharges who either suffer from PTSD or have been victims of sexual assault can now go to a review board.
Ultimately, they can upgrade their discharges to allow for VA healthcare. If it can be done in those cases, it should also be done for service-connected addiction cases.
Secondly, the VA has limited resources and these veterans have very specific needs. The VA budget must be increased. The VA could use new facilities and better-trained professionals to serve veterans’ needs.
Both the VA and Defense should also implement new methods for pain management. These might include acupuncture, non-opioid based medications and therapy.
Not everyone has sympathy for veterans discharged for misconduct — like drug abuse. But we must look past the black and white. Looking to the gray area will help us understand how soldiers get into their specific situations.
We must recognize that military service itself can play a role in addiction. We should give affected troops an opportunity for treatment and success. If we use our voices to encourage Congress to increase VA health care, other than honorably discharged veterans may see a positive outcome. By helping them, we are decreasing their odds of homelessness, illicit drug use and suicide.
These veterans were there for us; it is time for us to be there for them.
(Corrigan was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army through the St. Bonaventure University ROTC program in 2007, with a degree in nursing from the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, Pa. She is a full-time student at the University of North Florida in the master’s of public health program. Her husband, Phil Corrigan, also graduated and commissioned at St. Bonaventure (2006) and is a U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General officer in Jacksonville, Fla.)