Command Sgt. Major Tim Walz's New Mission: Getting Disability Benefits to Wounded Soldiers

Congressman Tim Walz is on a mission. More than seven years after hanging up his National Guard uniform, Walz is fighting for a group of veterans few have ever heard of: wounded soldiers discharged with "personality disorder."
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Congressman Tim Walz is on a mission. More than seven years after hanging up his National Guard uniform, Walz—the highest-ranking enlisted soldier on Capitol Hill—is fighting for a group of veterans few have ever heard of: wounded soldiers discharged with "personality disorder."

Most Americans know about the enormous backlog of disability claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers have returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan in desperate need of medical care, only to stand in a line one million veterans long, waiting an average of 322 days for their claims to be processed. For wounded soldiers shoved out the military's side door with personality disorder, the situation is even more grim. Because personality disorder is a pre-existing condition, soldiers discharged with the illness are ineligible for disability benefits and long-term medical care. They are, in other words, ineligible to stand in that line behind one million of their fellow soldiers.

Walz, a member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, saw firsthand how personality disorder discharges work when Specialist Jon Town and Sergeant Chuck Luther testified before his committee. Specialist Town was knocked unconscious by a rocket blast while serving in Iraq, an explosion that severely damaged his hearing. Town won the Purple Heart for his wounds but was then denied disability and medical benefits after military doctors declared that his deafness was caused by pre-existing personality disorder. Sergeant Luther was wounded by mortar fire in Iraq. Luther was then pressed to sign documents saying his mortar fire wounds were caused by personality disorder. When the sergeant refused, he was tortured by U.S. Army officials until he agreed to sign the documents.

Since 2001, more than 31,000 soldiers have been discharged with personality disorder at a savings to the military of over $17.2 billion in disability and medical benefits. Walz's new bill, H.R. 975, would grant those soldiers access to benefits. The former command sergeant major spoke with me about his bill and the uphill battle to get it passed.

Walz: It is an uphill battle. No doubt about that. With personality disorder, sometimes you feel like you're tilting at windmills.

Kors: You were there, at the Congressional hearings, for Specialist Town's testimony in 2007 and Sergeant Luther's in 2010.

Walz: I was, and it was stunning. People were saying, "I can't believe this is happening." Well, it is happening. I read your op-ed in the Harvard quarterly, and you said it right: There is no gray area here. Sometimes there are not two sides to a story.

Kors: What stunned me was the testimony of the military officials who tried to convince [committee chairman Bob] Filner that they were taking action to get these wounded soldiers disability benefits. But they weren't. Filner wasn't fooled, and he didn't back down.

Walz: That's right. I think for many years there has been an ethic here [in the capitol], stemming from 9/11, of "How dare you question our military." Filner didn't buy into that. And as the highest-ranking enlisted soldier ever to serve in Congress, I am in a unique position to take on this scandal as well. My first mission is to take care of our troops. I take that mission very personally.

Kors: Your bill, H.R. 975, the Servicemember Mental Health Review Act—what would it do?

Walz: It would allow the Records Review Board and the Physical Disability Board to take a second look at soldiers discharged with personality disorder. It would place two independent mental health experts on the boards to balance the military officials, experts who are able to look at these cases from an outside perspective. Soldiers would be able to bring a lawyer, instead of being forced to represent themselves, and could bring their own expert witnesses to prove that they are wounded from war, not suffering from a pre-existing condition. As the system is now, these disability hearings are essentially stacked against the soldiers.

Kors: Right now the Physical Disability Board is made up of three military officials. Even if you added two independent mental health experts, wouldn't they just be outvoted 3-2 every time?

Walz: I don't think so. Of course, the potential for fraudulent diagnoses and discharges would still be there. But the system would not be like it is now, where soldiers' injuries are just denied. This would bring daylight to the system. The board would have to explain its reasoning. And the minority would be able to write a dissenting opinion.

Kors: A lot of military families were hopeful when the Pentagon commissioned a "thoughtful and thorough" review of personality disorder cases. But then the review turned out to be a sham in which no soldiers were interviewed. Those families were hopeful when Barack Obama, as a senator, put forward a bill to halt all personality disorder discharges. But his bill didn't pass, and now the White House says only that President Obama "continues to be concerned" about the phony diagnoses. For those families, is your bill a legitimate reason to hope?

Walz: I understand why military families would be skeptical. But as I see it, to get legislative action on this, it's only a matter of awareness. Everyone who learns about the discharges, everyone who sees the clip of those hearings, knows that these discharges are wrong. We're working to get word out to others in Congress, sending our colleagues packets saying, "Take a look at this." We're going staff to staff saying, "You got to see this." And we're reaching out to the veterans' community. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and [its founder] Paul Rieckhoff have gotten in on this. And the Wounded Warrior Project and Vietnam Veterans of America are right there with us too.

Kors: But there's more to this than spreading awareness. We're talking about overcoming resistance from the Pentagon and VA.

Walz: That's true. But that can be done. Look at Agent Orange and the thousands of our Vietnam vets suffering from Parkinson's disease. For decades, whenever members of Congress would take up that issue, the Pentagon would announce a study and then delay. They'd run out the clock until a new Congress came in. In 2009 we had clusters of veterans with Parkinson's, the Mayo Clinic was looking at it, but the military still did not want to do anything. Then I watched something amazing happen: [Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric] Shinseki stepped in and said, "Okay. We're going to honor these claims."

Kors: You think the same thing could happen with personality disorder?

Walz: Absolutely. I saw it happen with my Stock Act, [which bars members of Congress from committing insider trading]. It had the support of six Congressmen for five years. Then 60 Minutes covered it, the president talked about it in his State of the Union, and now it's the law of the land.

Kors: So passage is possible?

Walz: It is. But we have to stay on it. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it does bend toward justice. This is a moral injustice. And we will right it because we have to.

Kors: What's your message to the military families who are struggling right now without benefits?

Walz: There are no words to make their situation better. Nothing can alleviate that pain, except fixing this situation. That's why it has to be done.

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