WASHINGTON – At the height of the Iraq war, the Army routinely dismissed hundreds of soldiers for having a personality disorder when they were more likely suffering from the traumatic stresses of war, discharge data suggests.
Under pressure from Congress and the public, the Army later acknowledged the problem and drastically cut the number of soldiers given the designation. But advocates for veterans say an unknown number of troops still unfairly bear the stigma of a personality disorder, making them ineligible for military health care and other benefits.
"We really have an obligation to go back and make sure troops weren't misdiagnosed," said Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, a clinical psychologist whose nonprofit "Give an Hour" connects troops with volunteer mental health professionals.
The Army denies that any soldier was misdiagnosed before 2008, when it drastically cut the number of discharges due to personality disorders and diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorders skyrocketed.
Unlike PTSD, which the Army regards as a treatable mental disability caused by the acute stresses of war, the military designation of a personality disorder can have devastating consequences for soldiers.
Defined as a "deeply ingrained maladaptive pattern of behavior," a personality disorder is considered a "pre-existing condition" that relieves the military of its duty to pay for the person's health care or combat-related disability pay.
According to figures provided by the Army, the service discharged about a 1,000 soldiers a year between 2005 and 2007 for having a personality disorder.
But after an article in The Nation magazine exposed the practice, the Defense Department changed its policy and began requiring a top-level review of each case to ensure post-traumatic stress or a brain injury wasn't the underlying cause.
After that, the annual number of personality disorder cases dropped by 75 percent. Only 260 soldiers were discharged on those grounds in 2009.
At the same time, the number of post-traumatic stress disorder cases has soared. By 2008, more than 14,000 soldiers had been diagnosed with PTSD — twice as many as two years before.
The Army attributes the sudden and sharp reduction in personality disorders to its policy change. Yet Army officials deny that soldiers were discharged unfairly, saying they reviewed the paperwork of all deployed soldiers dismissed with a personality disorder between 2001 and 2006.
"We did not find evidence that soldiers with PTSD had been inappropriately discharged with personality disorder," wrote Maria Tolleson, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Army Medical Command, which oversees the health care of soldiers, in an e-mail.
Command officials declined to be interviewed.
Advocates for veterans are skeptical of the Army's claim that it didn't make any mistakes. They say symptoms of PTSD — anger, irritability, anxiety and depression — can easily be confused for the Army's description of a personality disorder.
They also point out that during its review of past cases, the Army never interviewed soldiers or their families, who can often provide evidence of a shift in behavior that occurred after someone was sent into a war zone.
"There's no reason to believe personality discharges would go down so quickly" unless the Army had misdiagnosed hundreds of soldiers each year in the first place, said Bart Stichman, co-director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program.
Stichman's organization is working through a backlog of 130 individual cases of wounded service members who feel they were wrongly denied benefits.
Among those cases is Chuck Luther, who decided to rejoin the Army after the Sept. 11 attacks. He had previously served eight years before being honorably discharged.
"I knew what combat was going to take," he said.
Luther, who lives near Fort Hood, Texas, said throughout his time in the Army, he received eight mental health evaluations from the Army, each clearing him as "fit for duty."
Luther was seven months into his deployment as a reconnaissance scout in Iraq's violent Sunni Triangle in 2007 when he says a mortar shell slammed him to the ground. He later complained of stabbing eye pain and crippling migraines, but was told by a military doctor that he was faking his symptoms to avoid combat duty.
Luther says that he was confined for a month in a 6-by-8 foot room without treatment. At one point, Luther acknowledges, he snapped — biting a guard and spitting in the face of a military chaplain.
After that episode, Luther says, the Army told him he could return home and keep his benefits if he signed papers admitting he had a personality disorder. If he didn't sign, he said, he was told he would be kicked out eventually anyway.
Luther, whose account was first detailed by The Nation, signed the papers.
His case highlights the irony in many personality discharges. A person is screened mentally and physically before joining the military. But upon returning from combat, that same person is told he or she had a serious mental disorder that predated military service.
As in the civilian world, where many insurance companies deny coverage for illnesses that develop before a policy is issued, the government can deny a service member veteran health care benefits and combat-related disability pay for pre-existing ailments.
Despite the Defense Department's reforms, groups such as the National Veterans Legal Services Program say they don't have enough manpower to help all the veterans who believe they were wrongly denied benefits.
Stichman says his organization has more than 60 law firms across the country willing to take on the legal cases of wounded veterans for free. But even with that help, the group doesn't know when it would be able to take on even one new case.
A congressional inquiry is under way to determine whether the Army is relying on a different designation — referred to as an "adjustment disorder" — to dismiss soldiers.
Sen. Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican, wants the Pentagon to explain why the number of these discharges doubled between 2006 and 2009 and how many of those qualified to retain their benefits.
As for Luther, he got lucky. After about a year, he says the Veterans Administration agreed to reevaluate him and decided that he suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome coupled by traumatic brain injury. The ruling gives him access to a psychologist and psychiatrist every two weeks, despite his discharge status, he said.
But Luther acknowledges that he still struggles. In June, he received word that the Army had turned down his appeal to correct his record, which means he could never return to the service or retire with full benefits.
A week later, he says, he lost his job delivering potato chips because a superior felt threatened by him. Luther says he misses the Army.
"When I was in uniform, that defined me," he said. "It's what made me, me."