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Veterans Clinic Client Sues Army Over False “Adjustment Disorder” Diagnosis, Denial of Retirement Benefits

The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School has filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of William Cowles, a U.S. Army National Guard veteran and Connecticut native who served honorably for more than twenty years. The lawsuit challenges the illegal denial of Cowles’s application for medical retirement and asserts that the Army hastily discharged Cowles based on an erroneous diagnosis of Adjustment Disorder when he should have been medically retired for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to the Veterans Clinic, recent reports indicate the U.S. armed forces have wrongfully discharged thousands of service members for alleged personality or adjustment disorders when, in fact, many of these men and women have PTSD. Cowles is believed to be the first of these veterans to seek redress in federal court, where he will seek to correct this error so he can receive full retirement and education benefits.

Cowles is represented by law student interns Miriam Hinman and Sopen Shah of the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic, under the supervision of Professor Michael Wishnie. The clinic, founded in the fall of 2010, represents individual veterans and veterans organizations on a range of matters, including discharge upgrade, benefits claims, removal defense, civil rights matters, and Freedom of Information Act requests. It is one of only a handful of clinics in the country dedicated to serving veterans and their organizations.

Each military service branch operates an administrative board empowered to correct an error or injustice in a discharge. The Army Board for Correction of Military Records (ABCMR) denied Cowles’s request last year to correct his discharge to medical retirement.

“The ABMCR has denied every single application from veterans who received discharges for Adjustment Disorder and requested corrections to military retirement for PTSD in the past decade,” said Shah. “This discrimination against disabled veterans is intolerable.”

Cowles joined the Army in 1974 as a combat engineer. In 2003 he deployed to Iraq, where he witnessed the death of men from his unit and the brutal killing of a civilian truck driver. He suffered a breakdown and was medically evacuated. After two brief evaluations, the Army determined that he had Adjustment Disorder and immediately discharged him. Just two months later, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) diagnosed him with service-connected PTSD.

“The Army rushed me out the door without proper medical attention,” said Mr. Cowles. “I hope that my case can bring attention to this issue and help other veterans in my position get the benefits they deserve.”

The Government Accountability Office, members of Congress, and Vietnam Veterans of America have criticized the Army for discharging more than 30,000 people since September 11, 2001, in violation of Defense Department procedural protections for service members and based on erroneous diagnoses of Adjustment Disorder (AD) and Personality Disorder (PD).

“The Army misdiagnoses many service members who actually have PTSD and discharges them for AD or PD,” Hinman said. “As a result, these veterans cannot receive many benefits from the Army and the VA. Veterans with PTSD qualify for medical retirement, but since the Army misdiagnosed Cowles and violated its own discharge rules in his case, he has not received the retirement pay his service has earned.”

“The ABCMR is cutting corners,” said John Rowan, National President of Vietnam Veterans of America. “We commend Mr. Cowles for leading the charge to correct these mistakes, which deny veterans improperly separated for Adjustment Disorder the medical care, recognition, and benefits they have earned.”