Catch-22 is still on the books

In the classic novel by Joseph Heller, Yossarian, a U.S. Army soldier, learns that he can't get out of the Air Force by claiming to be insane because, under "Catch-22" in the regulations, that's what a sane person would do to avoid being killed. If he wanted to fly missions, he was insane and could be grounded; if he didn't want to, he was sane and had to fly them.

The novel, published in 1961, was satire but, like all good satire, contained a kernel of truth. Today's wounded veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are discovering that Catch-22 logic is alive and well in the way the Department of Veterans Affairs decides who is eligible for medical care after leaving the service and who is not.

Take the case of Jarrid Starks, who served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, earning the Bronze Star for valor. He returned to the states with diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, a twisted vertebra and a possible traumatic brain injury.

As Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton explained in a story in Monday's Mail Tribune, the VA denied Starks medical benefits because he left the Army with an other-than-honorable discharge. The reason? Smoking pot and being absent without leave while living off post near Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash.

This was a soldier deemed unable to carry and fire a weapon because his PTSD was so severe. He was heavily medicated. But because he tested positive for marijuana and went AWOL, he was booted out of the Army and denied the treatment he desperately needs.

It is obvious even to the casual reader that the behavior that led to Starks' other-than-honorable discharge is likely a direct result of his condition, which is the result of his combat experiences. A 1990 survey of more than 90,000 Marines found those who served in combat zones and received a PTSD diagnosis were more than 11 times more likely to receive a misconduct discharge than those who did not deploy and did not have PTSD.

There's the Catch-22: Service members who suffer combat-related PTSD are entitled to medical treatment — unless they misbehave and get kicked out of the service because they suffer from PTSD.

The VA isn't entirely blind to this contradiction, just unreasonably slow to address it. To appeal his case, Starks must undergo a VA review to determine whether he engaged in "willful and persistent misconduct," and if so, whether he's ineligible for medical care or disability benefits. This can take a year or more.

When a soldier clearly has served with honor, as Starks did, and suffered tremendous damage as a result, it is simply wrong to deny him the care he so clearly needs. At a bare minimum, the VA should establish a fast-track review process for soldiers such as Starks.

This is not the way to treat those who sacrificed their mental and physical health on the battlefield while wearing this country's uniform. It makes no sense.

Yossarian would understand perfectly.

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