Troops With Service-Related Mental Health Issues Say It's Unfair To Kick Them Out Of The Military
The Marine Corps established Wounded Warrior Battalions to aid troops with the worst mental and physical injuries. But Marines in the battalions who are suicidal or suffer from PTSD can still be discharged for misconduct.
Marine Staff Sgt. Romeo Pactores, Jr. made multiple combat tours — first in Iraq and later in Helmont province in Afghanistan.
Once, his outpost was attacked from a nearby village. On another occasion, as an instructor, he saved a fellow Marine's life by diving on top of the man just as a live grenade exploded nearby.
His military career took a toll on both his physical and mental health. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and experienced other symptoms.
"Getting attacked, firefights, so when I got back I noticed I was not the same," he said. "I started getting headaches and really dizzy."
Pactores' 18 year career as a Marine came to an abrupt end after he was arrested in Okinawa for driving under the influence. Pactores, who said he was hearing voices and having suicidal thoughts, was hospitalized and flown to the Naval Hospital in San Diego.
There, he was placed in a Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton. The Marine Corps established those battalions more than a decade ago to treat Marines suffering from the worst mental and physical injuries.
But the battalions often do little to help Marines with another challenge - preserving their military careers. Even as Pactores was undergoing treatment at Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps was trying to kick him out of the service for behavior issues.
"I feel like they are going to try to put me in the streets with no help, after all the years of service that I did," he said.
Kristopher Goldsmith, who formed the group Higher Ground Veterans Advocacy, said Pactores' story is a common one. It happened to him.
"I was kicked out of the Army in 2007 after surviving a suicide attempt," Goldsmith said. "And this is the type of thing that is all too common. Some branches are worse than the others."
Being involuntarily discharged can affect a veteran's benefits, make it harder to get a job and keep people from receiving a security clearance.
Goldsmith said it's too easy for commanders to involuntarily discharge service members.
"There's no accountability," Goldsmith said. "Officers can discharge people and ruin their lives by stripping people who are suffering from PTSD from access to health care. And that officer just gets to move on with their life while someone may end up suicidal, may end up dead a few years later."
Goldsmith is calling on Congress and Pentagon leaders to reform the system so that fewer troops get discharged for misconduct. He also said that when commanders kick someone out of the service, it should hurt the commanders when they're up for promotion.
It was Pactores' commander back in Okinawa who wanted him to be involuntarily discharged for misconduct, even though he's undergoing treatment.
In 2016, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus signed a policy that required the Marines to at least look at a service member's mental health condition before discharging him or her for misconduct, but it hasn't stopped the flow.
At the Camp Pendleton Wounded Warrior Battalion, commander Lt. Col. Brian Huysman wouldn't address individual cases. But he said most of the Marines who end up there are on their way out of the Corps, many voluntarily.
"My focus is to ensure their medical treatment is coordinated," Huysman said. "That's really where that begins and that ends. We're aware of legal issues. Of course we are aware those things are going on. But really our focus is on the medical side."
Huysman is a former infantry officer without a medical background. Wounded Warrior battalions are Marine units - not medical units. They coordinate treatment and connect with the VA benefit system for Marines being discharged because of illness or injury.
At the 11th hour, Pactores hired a private attorney, Jay Sullivan, to try to stop him from being discharged.
"If someone doesn't save him, I believe he will die," Sullivan said. "And he cannot do this alone. He needs help. He needs a lot of help because the disorders that he has are permanent, and he will be struggling for the rest of his life."
Pactores said it's more than a potential loss of benefits. It's a sense of abandonment.
"I had my interview with the Sergeant Major and the Lieutenant Colonel," he said. "I couldn't control my emotions, so I just started breaking down."
A few days after that interview, Pactores texted that his involuntary discharge was final. He had to leave the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton and head home to Texas, where he faces an uncertain future.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.