Sen. Patty Murray doesn't want Army PTSD investigation "shoved under a rug."

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TACOMA — In 2005, Staff Sgt. John Millan of the Washington National Guard returned home from Iraq with a Bronze Star and post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosed by Department of Veterans Affairs doctors.

Millan stayed in the Guard, attending weekend drills and annual training. Then, in 2011, with PTSD looming large in his life, he decided to seek a medical retirement, Millan testified Wednesday at a field hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

It was during a brief meeting with a National Guard health-care provider at Camp Murray, Millan testified, that he was told that the VA “hands out the PTSD diagnosis like candy” and that he would be unlikely to qualify for the retirement, which would have brought him a pension and other benefits.

“He said it is … more likely that I have an adjustment disorder, and that the Army does not medically retire soldiers with an adjustment disorder,” said Millan, 36, of Bonney Lake.

At the hearing, both Army and VA officials testified on the considerable efforts made in recent years to reach a common approach to diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder among the tens of thousands of military personnel returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is a high-stakes effort, both for veterans seeking help and for the federal government that foots the escalating bills for billions of dollars of treatment and benefits.

“We have come to organizational agreement as to what the diagnosis is and how to make that diagnosis,” said Robert Petzel, a VA undersecretary for health, who testified Wednesday. But Petzel said this agreement may not have filtered down to all the health-care providers and that it’s possible for a “disconnect” to occur.

Millan’s experience — along with the medical records of other soldiers reviewed by The Seattle Times — indicates disagreement remains about how to diagnose PTSD, with Army medical staff often skeptical of VA diagnoses as well as those made by other Army clinicians.

At Madigan Army Medical Center, a forensic-psychiatric team beginning in 2007 screened soldiers under consideration for medical retirement and ferreted out those it thought were wrongly diagnosed or were malingering.

The Madigan team overturned more than 300 PTSD diagnoses, which drew complaints to an Army Medical Command ombudsman and Sen. Patty Murray, who chairs the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. The Army is now investigating these reversals and offering some soldiers new mental-health evaluations, while the Pentagon undertakes a broader review of PTSD diagnoses.

In hearings in Washington, D.C., and again Wednesday in Tacoma, Murray has sought to keep the investigations in the limelight.

“I don’t want just an investigation that gets shoved under a rug and two years down the road from now we’re in the same place and we’re hearing the same stories,” Murray said. “We just can’t allow that to happen.”

Dr. Jo Ann Rooney, acting undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, said that the forensic evaluations at Madigan have been stopped.

She said she expects to return to Washington state in several weeks to get preliminary information about the investigation.

“We are taking the opportunity to step back and look at the process not only here at Madigan but across the country and other services to make sure that we have consistent (diagnostic) applications,” Rooney told Murray.

After detailing his frustrations at Wednesday’s hearing attended by high-ranking Army officers, Millan received some welcome news: Later in the day, he got a call from an Army lieutenant colonel who said his medical records were under review and outlined options for a possible medical retirement.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com