Lawmakers seek aid for wrongly discharged veterans

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Federal lawmakers are trying to make benefits available to veterans who may have been discharged in error due to behavior stemming from trauma during their service.

Veterans can be denied Veterans Administration health care and other benefits if they received dishonorable or less-than-honorable discharges. However, the military and veterans’ advocates are finding that thousands of former service members had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries at the time of their discharge.

“Whether it’s PTSD or traumatic brain injury, some of those injuries impact their behavior, and when their behavior changes while in the military, sometimes that leads to a discharge of less than honorable,” Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, told reporters Tuesday at the U.S. Capitol.

“Even though they’re suffering from these invisible wounds of war, they no longer have the opportunity to go to the VA to get the treatment that they have earned and certainly deserve.”

Peters’ Fairness for Veterans Act unanimously passed the Senate in June. He and a bipartisan group of House members are now pushing to include it in the final version of the defense spending legislation under negotiation between the House and Senate.

A recent report by the Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School found that three out of four veterans with “bad paper” discharges who served in combat and have post-traumatic stress disorder were denied eligibility by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.

“Bad paper” discharges are dishonorable or less-than-honorable discharges due to misconduct during their service. As a result, the veterans are unable to access VA health care, disability compensation, housing, education through the GI Bill and other support services under the VA’s regulations..

“Even for those veterans who have successfully appealed less-than-honorable discharges, and (gain) access to those services and benefits they need, the period of ineligibility for VA services can be an extremely difficult time,” said Brian Dempsey, a staff attorney for the Wounded Warrior Project, noting veterans are at greater risk of homelessness, mental health conditions and suicide.

The measure in Congress focuses on the military review boards that examine the cases of veterans who have applied to upgrade the terms of their less-than-honorable discharge.

The bill says that, when a veteran’s post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury is related to combat or military sexual trauma, the review board should grant a “rebuttable presumption” in favor of the veteran that their PTSD or traumatic brain injury contributed to the circumstances of their discharge. After considering medical evidence, the review boards have the authority to upgrade a discharge that is unjust or made in error.

Peters is a former lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserves. He learned about the issue with bad-paper discharges from a homeless Marine veteran from western Michigan who served in Afghanistan.

The Marine was agitated, depressed, lost sleep, had difficulty focusing and, as a result, began “self-medicating,” Peters said. The VA found he suffered from traumatic brain injury as a result of his combat service, but he was ineligible for treatment because of his bad papers. A military review board agreed.

“This is simply unconscionable,” Peters said. “As a country we must stand by our veterans who have served, and that no matter what happens we will be with them. That’s what this bill is about.”

Iraq vet Kristofer Goldsmith said he has struggled with PTSD since returning from his 2005 deployment, attempting suicide on Memorial Day weekend 2007, he said.

“Thankfully, I didn’t die that night. But when I woke up the next morning, I was treated like a criminal,” Goldsmith said. “Just a few weeks later, I was expeditiously administratively discharged from the Army, and I was stripped of my GI bill.”

Goldsmith has applied twice to upgrade his discharge and been denied twice, he said. He submitted a third application last week.

“This has taken nine years and one month, and I’m still fighting for the upgrade I deserve and recognition of my PTSD,” Goldsmith said.

Then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in 2014 issued new guidelines for the review boards to grant “liberal consideration” in deciding whether to grant discharge upgrades to Vietnam veterans with PTSD. The boards were denying Vietnam vets because their records lacked evidence of PTSD at the time of service, even though PTSD was not recognized as a medical diagnosis until 1980.

The Hagel guidance could be revoked by a future defense secretary, and so lawmakers want to codify the policy in law.

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