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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand takes up fight for veterans with mental issues

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-NY) listens to Iraqi war

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-NY) listens to Iraqi war veteran Kristofer Goldsmith of Long Beach, on Wednesday, April 16, 2014, speak about his forced discharge from the Army following a suicide attempt. He discusses how he began organizing, and eventually persuaded the Senator to propose legislation that would curb the practice of kicking soldiers out of the military because of service-related psychological problems. Goldsmith is surrounded by other Iraqi war veterans, in Garden City. Credit: Howard Schnapp

For years after leaving the Army, Iraq War veteran Kristofer Goldsmith seethed over his forced discharge after combat-related depression led him to attempt suicide days before he was scheduled to be sent back into battle. He embraced an outsider's attitude and wore a Mohawk haircut to indicate his disillusionment.

But disgruntlement gave way to organizing, and Goldsmith, a student at Nassau Community College, eventually persuaded Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to look into the Pentagon's practice of kicking soldiers out of the military because of service-related psychological problems.

Gillibrand Wednesday cited Goldsmith's apprisals as she announced her support for legislation that would force the military to include psychological health experts on panels that handle appeals from veterans seeking to clear their records of disciplinary discharges.

"While the men and women of our military risk their lives to protect our country, too many of the service members have been discharged as a result of undiagnosed or improperly diagnosed mental-health conditions," Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand, who made the announcement at the NCC campus in Garden City, said unfair disciplinary discharges can deny veterans access to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical care, disability checks, GI Bill student aid and other benefits they earned with their military service.

Employers often shun veterans who have less than a full honorable discharge, making it even harder for veterans to transition from military service to productive civilian life.

The Senate legislation, initially sponsored by Montana Democrats John Walsh and Jon Tester, was based on recommendations by the Iraq/Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group in which Goldsmith has emerged as a leader.

Last month, Goldsmith, 28, of Long Beach, led a group of several area veterans who visited members of Congress in Washington to advocate for the legislation and other pro-veteran policies.

"This bill will give veterans who are the most vulnerable a fighting chance," said Goldsmith, who is president of the college's veterans organization.

Goldsmith and other veteran advocates say the pressure to deploy troops during the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts caused the military to overlook psychological injuries soldiers sometimes struggled with.

A study by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rand Corp. in 2008, after five years of war in Iraq, found that one in three individuals who were deployed reported suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression or a traumatic brain injury.

Goldsmith said he fell into depression during a 2005 combat tour in Iraq, after being subject to troubling duties that included photographing the bodies of more than a dozen Iraqi torture victims exhumed from a makeshift grave.

Despite drinking heavily and getting into fights after his deployment, he was ordered to return to Iraq for another deployment. Instead, he tried to take his life with a mixture of alcohol and opiate painkillers. He was accused of misconduct and kicked out of the Army with a general discharge a few weeks later, Goldsmith said.

He said his repeated appeals to the Army to have his discharge status upgraded have been denied, and that his status makes him ineligible for tuition, housing and other aid offered under the post-9/11 GI Bill.

John Rowan, a founding member of Vietnam Veterans of America, said thousands of Vietnam veterans continue to suffer decades after their service because of discharges based on undiagnosed combat-related mental problems.

"It is a very serious problem," Rowan said. "It means if you have PTSD, where do you go to get counseling? Where do you go to get help? And a lot of these guys had physical issues, but were considered persona non grata by the VA."

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