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The next fight to help combat veterans

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"When I look at veteran suicide, I think we owe it to these combat veterans to give them access to mental healthcare," Mike Coffman told the Washington Examiner. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Kris Goldsmith, suffering from post-traumatic stress after a deployment to Iraq and forced to stay in the military past his set end date, went to the field on Fort Stewart, Ga., where soldiers planted trees for those who died in war.

There, he would try to take his life by drinking vodka and gulping Percosets. Lucky for Goldsmith, a friend found his suicide note, started a search party, and brought the unconscious soldier to the hospital.

Two months later, Goldsmith was kicked out of the Army with a general discharge, denying him access to many of the services veterans are typically granted when they leave the service.

Goldsmith appealed to have his discharge upgraded to an honorable discharge, but was denied. He received the rejection for his first appeal on the anniversary of his suicide attempt.

"It was like the Army was daring me to kill myself again," he said.

Goldsmith is one of at least 22,000 soldiers the Army has kicked out with other-than-honorable discharges for behavior that likely stems from post-traumatic stress and tours in combat. In Goldsmith's case, the bad behavior involved his suicide attempt.

"I thought maybe I shouldn't be fighting my own case. Maybe I should be fighting everyone's case and change the system," he said.

Combat veterans who struggle to adjust to a peacetime garrison environment from a war zone can be kicked out for things like arriving late to formation, getting into fights or drunken driving, which could be caused by symptoms of PTSD, like insomnia, or self-medication.

The Fairness for Veterans Act would give combat veterans the benefit of the doubt in their appeals if they were kicked out with an other-than-honorable discharge, potentially opening access to Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare, education benefits under the GI Bill and job placement help. Those evaluating the appeal would begin with the presumption that PTSD or a traumatic brain injury contributed to the cause of an other-than-honorable discharge.

"Irrespective of what these infractions are, to deny these combat veterans access to mental healthcare given the multiple deployments and stresses that they've been under in this over-a-decade-long war, I think is just unfortunate and I think it's wrong," Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who introduced the bill in the House, told the Washington Examiner. "When I look at veteran suicide, I think we owe it to these combat veterans to give them access to mental healthcare."

The language was initially included in the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which became law in February 2015, but was stripped out of the final bill.

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., another co-sponsor of the bill, said his colleagues mostly understand that the Clay Hunt act was just a first step and are willing to consider further changes.

"The day we did the signing ceremony, I talked about Clay Hunt 2.0 because there's still a lot more to do," he said.

Walz said many of his colleagues are supportive of this next step in improving veterans access to mental healthcare and that he would like to see the bill get rolled into the annual defense authorization act "once it hits critical mass."

A companion bill was also introduced in the Senate. Both have bipartisan support.

There are sticking points. Coffman said the Pentagon takes issue with the bill because it sees it as stripping the chain of command of its authority by reviewing its decisions.

"I think they see a review of this kind as giving up their authority and I disagree with that. I just think that the nature of these discharges is such that I think that they've just gone overboard in terms of not accepting these soldiers and these Marines who have had successful combat tours need some help," he said.

Another problem for some lawmakers is the cost. While the Congressional Budget Office has not yet released an official score on the bill, a staffer in Coffman's office said that it will likely be somewhere in the tens of millions to hundreds of millions, though the upper end made "very extreme" assumptions about how many troops would apply and what benefits they might use.

Goldsmith, who is still trying to get his discharge upgraded, said he finds questions about the cost "offensive" because any number is worth it to save the veterans whose lives are at stake.

"When you sent us to war you swiped a credit card. We're home now, it's time to pay the bill," he said. "I don't care what the bill costs, and that shouldn't matter to any legislator."