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Diagnosis kills veteran's benefits
Cape man among many battling ArmyBy JENNIFER BOOTH REED Originally posted on September 23, 2007 Andrew West/news-press.com
Christopher Gearhart, 35, of Cape Coral served nearly 14 years in the military — including three tours of duty in Iraq, two with the Navy and one with the Army.
Christopher Gearhart served 13 years in the military. He would have put in more time were it not for a hospitalization, a diagnosis and a discharge last year.
Removed from serviceGearhart's discharge came after 12 years in the U.S. Navy, a year in the Reserves and four months in the Army, where he had planned to finish out his military career.
Gearhart said an Army officer brought him his discharge papers while he was being treated at Texas State Mental Hospital, where his commanders sent him after he had spent six weeks in a private psychiatric hospital.
"He said you're being discharged for a personality disorder," Gearhart recalled. "I said I didn't have personality disorder. I have bipolar."
Gearhart does not have copies of his diagnoses from Texas, but he provided The News-Press with doctors' notes from Ruth Cooper Center in Fort Myers, Riverside Behavioral Health Center in Punta Gorda and a private psychiatrist, all of which confirmed his bipolar disease.
Diagnosis difficultRitchie couldn't talk about Gearhart's case because of medical privacy laws.
But from her general description of mental health conditions, it's difficult to see how Gearhart could be diagnosed with a personality disorder.
Ritchie said neither bipolar nor post traumatic stress disorder are personality disorders. The Army uses standard medical definitions of mental health conditions, and bipolar does not fall into the personality disorder spectrum.
"This has to be a deeply ingrained, maladaptive behavior that interferes with a soldier's ability to perform his duty," she said.
But she also said the diagnoses could be complicated. Symptoms of borderline personality disorder could overlap with symptoms of bipolar.
Ritchie said it could take psychological testing and a thorough review of the soldier's history to determine whether he showed a long-standing pattern of behaviors, which would suggest personality disorder.
The Army would likely consider opinions of civilian doctors, Ritchie said, but military physicians would issue a final behavioral analysis and diagnosis.
Gearhart had three other hospitalizations while on duty and was hospitalized once through Florida's Baker Act while on leave. All of those incidents were for depression, Gearhart said. The hospital stays were short, and the doctors who stabilized him did not diagnose the bipolar at the time.
Even so, he moved up the Naval ranks to a grade of E-6. The highest rank for enlisted personnel is E-9.
Gearhart did not yet have copies of his brief Army record, but he provided copies of his Navy discharge papers, all of them "honorable" and coded RE-R1, which meant he was eligible to return to military duty. The discharge papers list numerous awards and designations, including two Bronze Stars and good conduct medals.
"If he was in the military 13 years, there is no way he could have had a personality disorder," said Paul Sullivan, a former Department of Veterans Affairs administrator who now runs the Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense.
He doesn't know Gearhart, but he's been following cases like his across the country.
"They used personality disorder just to get rid of him," Sullivan said.
'Disgraceful'Gearhart's medical debt totals $8,000 — and that's not including a weeklong hospitalization at Riverside Behavioral Health Center in Punta Gorda.
Cases like his are infuriating some lawmakers."We think it's a disgraceful situation. We think it's a deliberate policy to use up kids and then try to save money," said U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, a California Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Filner ordered hearings on the subject last summer.Since then, two Illinois Democrats, U.S. Rep. Phil Hare and Sen. Barack Obama, have filed legislation asking for a moratorium on personality disorder diagnoses.
"It's an epidemic and it's an abuse of the system by the military to kick out veterans and save money by denying veterans their health care and disability benefits," said Sullivan of Veterans for Common Sense.
According to the Army, the number of soldiers discharged for personality disorders today is lower than that of the late 1990s. Of the 80,000 soldiers who left service in 2006, 1,086 were discharged for personality disorders.
Even so, the Army is reviewing the discharges of all combat veterans diagnosed with personality disorders since 2001, said Ritchie, the Army colonel.
"We certainly are aware of the allegations and we are taking them very seriously," she said.
Ritchie said she doesn't believe the allegations of intentional misdiagnoses.
"A military physician wants to do the right thing by the soldier. The amount of disability benefits is not an issue," Ritchie said.
A kid againOn a recent morning, Gearhart settled into an armchair in his parents' Cape Coral home. He's living with them until he can find a job and start a civilian life.
"It's like I'm a kid again living at home," Gearhart said.
It's hard to read his emotions. He's frustrated by the situation, but his voice and his expressions don't reveal much. Whether that's because of his medications or his underlying self or a practiced ability to stay cool under pressure is impossible to know.
Gearhart has experience in nuclear engineering and accounting, compliments of the Navy. He also put himself through two years of law school.
He said his bipolar disease is under control, as long as he can get medication. He said he should have been diagnosed with the disorder years ago.
"Looking back on it now, I just thought it was me," he said.
Hope isn't lost.Ritchie said any soldier who questions his discharge can appeal to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records. They also can call a hotline for wounded soldiers and their families to discuss health and benefits concerns.
"If we did, by any chance, do the wrong thing, we want to right it," Ritchie said.
Gearhart has joined the American Legion in the hopes he can purchase insurance through the organization. He is in the process of applying for drug assistance programs from the pharmaceutical companies that make his medication.
And he appealed the VA's denial of benefits, although he wonders whether the government he served will now assist him.
"All those years spent in the military, it's hard to walk away with nothing," he said.
"But it's so hard to fight the government."
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