PTSD Issues for Current Military Service Members

Seeking treatment for PTSD while still in military service protects you from getting bad paper and from getting denied veterans benefits in the future.

By , Attorney · Northeastern University School of Law

While you are on active duty for the military, you may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and not realize it. Perhaps you become angry very quickly without understanding why, repeatedly have images flash through your mind of tragic incidents you have witnessed or been involved in, or have night terrors even when on base away from combat. If so, you may begin to have difficulty adhering to military discipline and be issued several Article 15s.

You may, as many service members with PTSD do, begin using alcohol or drugs to cope with your symptoms. This can lead to more serious conduct problems, which can potentially lead to a dishonorable discharge. If that happens, you will be unable to obtain any benefits from the VA once your return home. Contrary to popular opinion, you will not receive any discharge upgrade automatically after six months.

If you think you may have PTSD, it's usually in your best interests to seek treatment for it while still in service.

How an In-Service Diagnosis of PTSD Helps You

Getting an in-service diagnosis of PTSD can help you avoid a dishonorable discharge and help you get veterans disability benefits and VA health care.

Service-connected benefits. An in-service diagnosis will help you prove your disability is service-connected if you later seek disability compensation, as well as help establish an early effective date for disability benefits.

Effective date. Recently discharged veterans are allowed an earlier effective date for disability compensation than others. Usually a veteran's effective date is the date of the application for disability benefits, but if you apply within one year of discharge, the effective date of your benefits will be the date you were discharged, if you can prove you were disabled on that date.

Willful misconduct. If you are diagnosed with PTSD while on active duty, this can help to protect you from being refused VA benefits on the basis of willful misconduct. If you act inappropriately, having a PTSD diagnosis can establish that your misbehavior was not intentional but was instead a symptom of your illness. For example, if you get into frequent fights because of PTSD and this leads to serious injuries, your in-service diagnosis of PTSD can help to prevent the VA from refusing to provide you with any benefits based on your misconduct.

PTSD Treatment and Your Career

A diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder is unlikely, alone, to bring an end to your military career. In fact, in the absence of treatment, you may develop behavioral problems that will themselves harm your career. In some cases, seeking help can help to protect your career. It can be seen as positive that you sought treatment instead of allowing symptoms to worsen and develop into performance problems.

It is likewise a myth that you will lose your security clearance if you are diagnosed with PTSD. Again, the fact that you sought treatment can, in fact, be seen as a positive and actually support the procurement or maintenance of your security clearance. Types of actions that will impede a security clearance include committing a crime or assisting the enemy.

While there has been a significant stigma in the military against admitting to PTSD, that stigma is lessening. More and more active duty members of the military are becoming aware of their right not to be penalized for behavior that stems from the stress of their combat and other active duty service. Think of what it will mean to you and your family later on to receive VA compensation and educational benefits, among others.

Request a Medical Examination

If you believe you are suffering from PTSD, request a medical examination. You need an official diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder in your military records to protect your discharge and your rights to veterans benefits.

When to Request a Medical Exam

Do not wait to request a medical exam until a negative discharge is imminent. Request it as soon as possible when you recognize symptoms.

When the Military Is Required to Give You a Medical Exam

If you say you have PTSD, the military is required to give you a medical examination to evaluate whether you have PTSD before pushing you out of the service on dishonorable terms.

What to Expect During a Military Exam

Due to a high volume of PTSD among service members in the Middle East, the military is making efforts to screen for PTSD more effectively. Standards are being put in place for military medical clinicians to follow. An example is the U.S. Army Medical Command guidelines for standardized PTSD assessment and treatment issued in April 2012. Similar efforts are underway in other branches of the military.

These guidelines specifically state that your lack of prior treatment should not be used against you and acknowledge that many service members do not seek treatment for PTSD for fear of harming their careers.

Use Caution During a Medical Exam

Do not provide any information to a military doctor that can be used against you. Remember that the results of the examination will not be kept confidential. Do not volunteer any information about crimes you may have committed, drug use, or homosexual conduct, all of which can be used to subject you to a court-martial and dishonorable discharge.

Military Sexual Trauma and PTSD

If you have developed PTSD as a consequence of military sexual trauma (MST), please consider reporting the sexual assault or harassment and seeking medical treatment for it. Go to a private medical provider if you prefer not to seek treatment from the military.

Despite some changes in VA regulations, it can still be quite challenging to obtain benefits due to MST. The stigma against reporting these sexual assaults is significant, yet creating a paper trail can help you if you receive a negative discharge and need to seek an upgrade. (Keep copies of all documents relating to the MST and other evidence, don't wait and request them later as they may go "missing.")

This is important because, unfortunately, those on active duty who report sexual assaults may receive a dishonorable discharge, be released on a disqualifying disability discharge (for example, a personality disorder, which is not eligible for disability compensation), or receive other retaliation.

The Ruth Moore Act of 2013 currently before Congress would make it much easier to obtain benefits by requiring only a statement from the survivor of the sexual violence that it had occurred and eliminating the need for corroborating evidence. If the Ruth Moore Act is implemented, survivors of MST will need only submit a "stressor statement" about the sexual harassment or assault to establish that the violations occurred. This will make the benefits adjudication process for post-traumatic stress disorder due to MST the same as the process for all other PTSD disability claims.

Seeking a Disability Discharge for PTSD

If your post-traumatic stress disorder is very severe, you may wish to seek to be discharged from the military on the basis of a PTSD disability. You cannot apply for such a discharge; instead it must be recommended by a military doctor. Your doctor might recommend a disability discharge if your psychological symptoms substantially impair your ability to serve.

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