Congress Reacts to Military Mental and Brain Health Issues

When U.S. senators from two political parties come together to introduce legislation, without argument or hesitation, one should take notice.

In the current climate, when political opposites attract one might think money, prestige, or influence are involved, but in the case of the bill to improve military mental health evaluations for service members, Sen.s Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), no such benefits await them. They appear to have only altruistic and patriotic motivation for seeing that our heroes receive the comprehensive medical attention they need and deserve.

The Medical Evaluations Parity for Service Members Act of 2014 (S. 2231 or MEPS Act,) states that before anyone can become enlisted or receive a commission in the armed forces of the United States they shall receive a “mental health assessment” that will be a “baseline for any subsequent mental health evaluations.”

Alex Burgess gets emotional while visiting the gravesite of an old friend who was killed in Iraq, in section 60 at Arlington Cemetery, May 27, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia. For Memorial Day President Obama layed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, paying tribute to military veterans past and present who have served and sacrificed their lives for their country.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Alex Burgess gets emotional while visiting the gravesite of an old friend who was killed in Iraq, in section 60 at Arlington Cemetery, May 27, 2013 in Arlington, Virginia. For Memorial Day President Obama layed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, paying tribute to military veterans past and present who have served and sacrificed their lives for their country. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

This would bring mental health and “brain health” issues to parity with the physical evaluations conducted prior to admittance into the military.

If passed, the law would also include a comprehensive physical and mental and brain health evaluation when the service member comes off of at least 180 days of active duty or separates from the service. This would include screening for Traumatic Brain Injury, recently found to cause most instances of Post Traumatic Stress, which could lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. TBI is a “brain hurt” as opposed to a “mind hurt” issue that is more physiologic than mental.

We are finally addressing TBI issues, the signature issues of our returning heroes. Brain injury is not synonymous with “mental illness,” and the treatments for mental illness are often detrimental to TBI, hence the distinction is very important.

It is estimated that over 400,000 Global War on Terror veterans suffer from TBI, and most go undiagnosed and untreated, which leads to PTS and then possible PTSD.

AP photo.
AP photo.

Veteran and former U.S. Army Military Police non-commissioned officer, Curtis Armstrong was given a routine exit physical which didn’t connect the dots between his symptoms of memory loss, headaches, and thought process problems, since identified as being associated with TBI.

We can all imagine that if you’re not looking for something, and don’t know what it looks like even if you were, you’re not going to find anything. That’s exactly what happened to Curtis, and hundreds of thousands of his comrades.

The Resurrecting Lives Foundation, founded by Dr. Chrisanne Gordon, has been trying to gain the attention of politicians in Washington, D.C., for several years now. They have a panel of experts and have been advocating for the establishment of proper screening and treatment for veterans with TBI. Moving forward, the most encouraging event to date has been the MEPS Act introduction in the Senate.

When I inquired as to the catalyst for Sen. Portman’s introduction of the MEPS bill his staff replied:

“[T]he MEPS Act is a response to the clear need for better monitoring and assessing of service members’ mental health. While recent tragedies like the shootings at Fort Hood and the Navy Yard raised the profile of these issues, the need to address it has been apparent for far too long…Last summer, Senator Portman’s [Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee] subcommittee held a hearing on improving access to health care, including mental health care, for rural veterans. To help correct this, Sen. Portman introduced an amendment to the FY14 defense authorization bill requiring [the Department of Defense] to report on the current status of telehealth initiatives within [the Department of Defense] and plans to integrate them into the military health care system. Sen. Portman and Sen. Rockefeller also attempted to introduce language requiring mental health screenings for exiting service members. This language is now included as part of the MEPS Act.”

At the risk of seeming too giddy about these latest developments, which bring not just mental health, but “brain health” issues of military personnel into a broader light, it has been far too long that these issues have stayed in the shadows.

Soldiers like Curtis deserve better, and we as a country need to pay close attention to how we can help. Encouraging our own legislators, local, state and national, to support and pass the MEPS Act is just a start; there needs to be more resources allocated to ensuring our best and brightest are also well cared for, especially after their deployment service has ended.

AP
AP

Among the several professional organizations endorsing this bill is the Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. According to Dr. Gordon, rehabilitation specialists would be included in the evaluations and in the program of reintegration.

“Sen. Portman did that, inviting collaboration with the private sector – the way to solve the TBI epidemic,” she said.

We can’t afford a legacy of forgotten warriors. We cannot endure the nightmare of neglected veterans. We are better than that. We, each of us, have an obligation to care for those we depended on to protect our ideals and us. Nothing less than a full accounting of every suffering veteran should be acceptable.

The Veterans Administration can be a hero here instead of the villian. If Secretary of Veterans Affairs retired general Eric Shinseki would pay attention to what’s going on in Congress, he could beat legislators to the punch: He could ask for funds to implement the essence of the MEPS Act within VA policy and practice.

Beginning with the new fiscal year in October 2014, he could seize the initiative in the war against mental and brain health issues in the military. You could suggest this to your legislators when you encourage them to sign on as co-sponsors and then pass the MEPS Act.

It’s important to remember that enshrining mental health evaluations for military personnel in law would ensure implementation in a timely manner, but if the MEPS Act gets held up in committee or is defeated, having the VA move forward with policy and practice changes through budgetary requests for fiscal year 2015 would honor the commitment our heroes deserve and should expect.

I am the author of “Saving Grace at Guantanamo Bay: A Memoir of a Citizen Warrior,” and three times mobilized U.S. Army Reserve Major (Retired). Twitter @mjgranger1.

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