Troops With Service-Related Mental Health Issues Say It's Unfair To Kick Them Out Of Military
The U.S. Marine Corps established Wounded Warrior battalions more than a decade ago to address Marines suffering from the worst mental and physical injuries.
But those battalions aren't addressing the legal issues Marines might have to deal with when they face being kicked out for misconduct if they suffer from suicidal thoughts or PTSD.
Staff Sgt. Romeo Pactores Jr. made multiple combat tours, first in Iraq in 2004 and later in the Helmont province in Afghanistan, when his outpost was attacked from a nearby village.
“Getting attacked, firefights, so when I got back I noticed I was a different person,” he said.
A few years later, as an instructor, Pactores remembers saving a Marine’s life. He says a young Marine threw a live grenade and it bounced back, landing in between them. The Marine froze, and Pactores dived on top of him.
“Everything was slow motion,” he said. “By the time I grabbed that Marine, I really thought I was going to lose my leg.” Instead, Pactores received a traumatic brain injury.
“I started getting headaches, really dizzy,” he said.
Pactores’ 18-year career as a Marine came to an abrupt halt after a DUI charge in Okinawa, Japan. Pactores said he was hearing voices. He was hospitalized with suicidal thoughts and flown back to the Naval Hospital in San Diego. He spoke about his situation from a Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendleton, as he was fighting to stop the Marine Corps from kicking him out of the service.
“I feel they are going to put me on the street, with no help, after all the years of service,” he said.
Kristopher Goldsmith says it’s a common story. It happened to him.
“Yeah, I was kicked out of the Army in 2007 after surviving a suicide attempt. And this is the type of thing that is all too common. Some branches are worse than the others,” he said.
Goldsmith has gone on to form Higher Ground Veterans Advocacy, where he advocates for changing the law so that fewer troops get discharged for misconduct in the first place. Being involuntarily discharged can affect a veterans' benefits. It can also make it tougher for them to get a job or receive a security clearance. Goldsmith says it happens as often as it does because it’s easy for commanders to separate 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 says he’d like to change the law so when commanders kick someone out of the service, it hurts the commanders when they're up for promotion.
At the Camp Pendleton Wounded Warrior Battalion where Pactores was assigned, the commander wouldn't address individual cases.
Lt. Col. Brian Huysman said most of the Marines who end up in the Wounded Warrior Battalion are on their way out of the Corps, many voluntarily.
“My focus is to ensure their medical treatment is coordinated,” he said. “That’s really where that begins and ends. We’re aware of legal issues. Of course, we are aware those things are going on. But really our focus is on the medial 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 Veterans Affairs benefit system, for those Marines being discharged because of illness or injury.
It was Pactores’ commander back in Okinawa who wanted him to be involuntarily discharged for misconduct, even though he’s undergoing treatment. In 2016, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus signed a policy that required the Marines to at least look at the mental health condition, before discharging someone for misconduct, but it hasn’t stopped the flow of discharges.
At the 11th hour, Pactores hired a private attorney, Jay Sullivan, who specializes in military law, 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.”
In a follow-up interview, 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 yesterday," Pactores said. "I couldn’t control my emotions, so I just started breaking down.”
A few days after the last 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.