The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School won a pivotal case for veterans’ affairs last week.
Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court of Connecticut Janet Hall ruled last Tuesday that William Cowles, a U.S. Army veteran, had been improperly discharged from the army after being misdiagnosed with adjustment disorder. Hall ruled that Cowles was entitled to much higher medical benefits than those the army provided him. This is the first court to rule that the army has wrongly discharged a service member with adjustment disorder. According to Linda Zang LAW ’15, one of the three Yale law students who are interns at the clinic, similar misdiagnoses may affect thousands of veterans.
“This problem of the army misdiagnosing soldiers and then inappropriately discharging them is a problem that a lot of veterans face, whether they served in more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, or whether they are from older conflicts like Vietnam,” she said. “It’s a widespread problem that affects veterans from different generations.”
Cowles served in the army for over 20 years, and was medically evacuated from Iraq after witnessing multiple deaths and suffering a breakdown. At the time, the army diagnosed him with an adjustment disorder and discharged him with a small administrative reparation. Two months later, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs diagnosed Cowles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a more serious diagnosis that qualified him for medical retirement.
“Adjustment disorder is a reaction to pressure that can’t last longer than six months, while PTSD is chronic and ongoing,” said Ashley Anderson LAW ’16, another intern at the Clinic. “Because PTSD is difficult to diagnose until past that six month point, some veterans may be improperly discharged with adjustment disorder.”
Zang said there are two key problems with misdiagnoses of veterans. First, veterans might not qualify for retirement and education benefits that are specifically provided or certain diagnoses. Second, Zang said misdiagnoses can prevent veterans from finding jobs because of the stigma surrounding adjustment and personality disorders.
Hall’s ruling makes it possible for Cowles to receive full benefits for PTSD.
“The Army’s own regulations [ … ] require that soldiers be given ‘ample opportunity’ to recover from [adjustment disorder] before separation, set a policy heavily in favor of rehabilitating soldiers and invoke the standards of the medical community,” read the judge’s official court ruling. The ruling stated that the army should not have discharged Cowles until at least six months after he was diagnosed with adjustment disorder.
Anderson said she is hopeful that this ruling will have broad implications. She said the six month requirement could prevent future misdiagnoses.
“I think it’s very heartening for veterans who have been improperly discharged to see that Mr. Cowles was able to win in court,” Anderson said.
This summer, Gov. Daniel Malloy signed a bill to help streamline the transition from military career fields into civilian career fields. Nationwide, President Obama signed a $16-billion Veterans Choice, Access and Accountability Act, which aims to improve veterans’ access to care throughout the country.