Stars and Stripes: ‘Thousands’ of veterans with bad paper discharges might not know they can upgrade

WASHINGTON — Veterans kicked out of the military due to negative behavior related to post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and sexual trauma have been upgrading their discharges after a 2017 law change, but there are potentially thousands of others left without access to care or benefits because of less-than-honorable discharges.

The landmark Fairness for Veterans Act, included in the 2017 military funding bill, aimed to help veterans upgrade their discharges. It requires a review from military officials to consider medical evidence to see whether mental illness or injury led to the discharge.

Since the measure went into effect, 1,580 veterans have upgraded their discharges through 2019, according to the most recent Defense Department data.

Despite the boost and efforts from Congress, some say a shockingly low number of veterans are applying for upgraded discharges.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who introduced the bill in the Senate, said last week that he is happy with the early results of his bill, but is concerned there is a large number of veterans who do not know they can upgrade their discharge.

“I suspect the number who qualify is much higher,” Peters said. “I think a lot of veterans with less-than-honorable discharges are suffering from PTSD and simply do not know that there is a way to have that discharge evaluated. … You could be talking about thousands of vets.”

‘Bad paper’ consequences

Leaving the military with any type of discharge other than honorable can cripple a veteran’s life and can be a huge hurdle to obtaining benefits. A general discharge disqualifies a veteran from the GI Bill benefits. An other-than-honorable discharge still allows veterans to seek health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but they often are turned away improperly.

For decades, thousands of veterans with other-than-honorable discharges were turned away from the VA unlawfully, according to a study by Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School and the gay veterans group OUTVETS, released in March. The mass denial of benefits since 1980 has left about 400,000 at risk without care, the study found.

Discharges that are other-than-honorable, including general discharges, are given for misconduct ranging from alcohol abuse, drug use and insubordination, but those infractions rarely result in courts-martial, meaning the service member never has their day in court and never gets due process. Those discharges are referred to as “bad paper” because of the negative consequences they have and the stigma they can carry.

Peters’ 2017 measure expanded a memo issued by former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in 2014. The memo called on the Department of Defense to give the benefit of the doubt to Vietnam veterans who sought to correct their military records, contending PTSD could have contributed to their discharges.

By:  Steve Beynon
Source: Stars and Stripes