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Too many veterans leave the military with mental health conditions. Additionally, many of them may have had their mental health conditions misdiagnosed while they were serving. As a result, veterans may be cited as having a “personality disorder” as the reason for their separation on their military discharge document, the DD 214, even when they do not have a personality disorder. Even if these diagnoses were correct at the time of discharge, the Services should not have specified the disability on these veterans’ DD 214 documents, as it may prevent them from having access to proper mental health resources following their separation.
A 2008 Government Accountability Office study found that, between 2001 and 2007, the military departments separated about 26,000 servicemembers from their ranks because of a personality disorder. The study reported that “of these 26,000, about 2,800 had deployed at least once in support of OEF/OIF.” The number of discharges for personality disorder through 2010 may have been as high as 31,000.
Having a personality disorder is not an absolute bar to military service anymore. The National Institute of Health describes personality disorders as “a group of mental illnesses” that “involve long-term patterns of thoughts and behaviors that are unhealthy and inflexible.” There are ten types of personality disorders grouped into three clusters (Clusters A, B, and C). The cause of personality disorders is unknown, but the disability may result from nature and nurture during childhood.
Personality disorders are complex. Their intricacies are beyond the scope of this article. Because of their complexities, mental health providers do not typically diagnose a personality disorder after one encounter with a patient. This is one reason the GAO study raised valid concerns about the Services’ compliance with Department of Defense requirements for diagnosing personality disorders.
The unfortunate reality is that providers may have misinterpreted traumatic brain injury (TBI) symptoms for personality disorders. A misdiagnosis of a personality disorder has obvious consequences. For one, service members could lose their military careers for a condition they do not have. For another, their DD 214 may cite “personality disorder” as a reason for separation from the military. Veterans often share their DD 214 with prospective colleges or employers to prove military service and obtain benefits and hiring preferences. A DD 214 that reflects a specific mental health diagnosis, especially for personality disorder, violates medical privacy and stigmatizes veterans.
The Services now use more generic language to describe discharges based on mental or physical disabilities. But this has not always been the case. Veterans who have a DD 214 with personality disorder as the narrative reason for separation from the military may apply to have this sensitive information removed from this important document. Each military department operates a Discharge Review Board and Board for Correction of Military or Naval Records. Federal law and Department of Defense regulations afford veterans the right to petition these boards to have their discharges upgraded or discharge records amended.
Veterans should get help from an experienced military law attorney before petitioning the Discharge Review Board or Board for Correction. An attorney experienced with military and veterans’ legal matters can ensure that the request for a discharge upgrade or correction of a DD 214 meets legal requirements for obtaining the desired relief. An attorney can work closely with the veteran to build the strongest, most compelling case for changing the reason for discharge reflected on the DD 214.
Many veterans who served before and during OEF/OIF may have been improperly diagnosed with a personality disorder. Others may have left the service with the correct diagnosis. Persons with personality disorders should not feel ashamed or stigmatized. They also should not have their disability front and center on their primary record of military service. Our Nation’s heroes have options available to them to correct this error and injustice in their military records.
Jeremy McKissack is a senior associate with Tully Rinckey’s Military Law Practice Group. He represents and advocates for service members and veterans before courts-martial, administrative separation boards, and other military or federal agencies and departments. He is licensed to practice law in Illinois and Georgia and continues to serve his country as a reservist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (888)-529-4543.