07.22.16

Peters, Colleagues Urge Inclusion of Fairness for Veterans Provision in Final Defense Bill

WASHINGTON, DC - U.S Senator Gary Peters (MI) today led seven of his colleagues in sending a letter to Senators John McCain and Jack Reed, Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urging inclusion of a provision to help veterans who may have been erroneously discharged from the military in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) conference report. The Senate unanimously passed an amendment led by Senators Peters, Steve Daines (MT), Thom Tillis (NC), and Kirsten Gillibrand (NY) that would give liberal consideration to veterans petitioning to upgrade a less than honorable discharge due to behavior resulting from mental traumas such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), but the amendment was not included in the NDAA passed by the House of Representatives. The two chambers will be meeting in a conference committee to resolve differences between their two versions of the NDAA.

[The amendment] has strong, bipartisan support and is a necessary step forward to ensure that certain veterans suffering from mental traumas such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI) have access to earned benefits," wrote the Senators. “The need for this liberal consideration standard remains all too clear as the number of returning Post-9/11 veterans continues to increase.”

A less than honorable discharge, or bad paper discharge, is often given for instances of minor misconduct such as being late to formation and missing appointments – behavior often seen in those suffering from PTSD, TBI, and other trauma-related conditions. A less than honorable discharge renders servicemembers ineligible for certain benefits, including Post-9/11 G.I. Bill educational benefits and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) home loans.

The bipartisan amendment passed by the Senate codifies the principles of the 2014 Hagel memo, which instructed Discharge Review Boards (DRBs) to give liberal consideration to petitions for changes in discharge status to honorable if the servicemember has been diagnosed with PTSD, TBI or related conditions in connection with their military service. Additionally, the amendment extends the policy to PTSD or TBI that is related to military sexual trauma.

The legislation has broad support from major veteran groups, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, the Military Officers Association of America, the American Legion, Paralyzed Veterans of America, United Soldiers and Sailors of America, Vietnam Veterans of America, and Swords to Plowshares.

Peters was joined on the bipartisan letter by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Steve Daines (R-MT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), and Thom Tillis (R-NC).

The full text of the letter is below and available HERE:

The Honorable John McCain

Chairman

Senate Committee on Armed Services

228 Russell Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510

The Honorable Jack Reed

Ranking Member

Senate Committee on Armed Services

228 Russell Senate Office Building

Washington, DC 20510

 

 

Dear Chairman McCain and Ranking Member Reed:

As you begin conference discussions on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2017, we write to request that you maintain the provisions in Section 536Aof the Senate bill, S. 2943, in the final conference report. Section 536A has strong, bipartisan support and is a necessary step forward to ensure that certain veterans suffering from mental traumas such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI) have access to earned benefits.  

As you know, the Military Department Boards for Correction of Military/Naval Records (BCM/NR) have received a significant number of petitions in recent years to upgrade less than honorable discharges based on claims of previously unrecognized PTSD. Less than honorable discharges, colloquially known as “bad paper” discharges, are often given to separating servicemembers for instances of minor misconduct, including being late to formation and missing scheduled appointments. These behaviors have been shown to be associated with PTSD, TBI, and other trauma-related conditions, with one estimate suggesting that discharges for misconduct are 11 times more likely after a PTSD diagnosis.

Recognizing that many former servicemembers suffer from undiagnosed stress-related conditions, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued policy guidance in 2014 that instructed the BCM/NRs to give “liberal consideration” when reviewing upgrade petitions when evidence indicates that PTSD might have contributed to the misconduct that led to a less than honorable discharge. A recent investigation by National Journal found that roughly 318,000, or 13% of all Post-9/11 veterans, have separated with a less than honorable discharge, even as the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that up to 20% of these veterans have PTSD in a given year. Section 536A of S. 2943 codifies and builds upon existing policy by applying the liberal consideration standard to the Discharge Review Boards (DRB). This section also goes further by extending the principles of the Hagel memo to include PTSD or TBI that is related to military sexual trauma. The need for this liberal consideration standard remains all too clear as the number of returning Post-9/11 veterans continues to increase.

We are pleased that House Committee on Armed Services included language in their report on the House bill, H.R. 4909, that “encourages the Department to extend the ‘liberal consideration’ standard…to all discharge upgrade cases considered by Discharge Review Boards,” in addition to the BCM/NRs. However, despite the inclusion of such language in the committee report, we believe it remains crucial to codify this standard for both Boards into law. Section 536A of the Senate bill will help ensure proper due process for servicemembers whose condition should have been diagnosed and properly considered prior to their discharge from the military.

Thank you for your consideration of this request, and we look forward to working with you to ensure that those veterans who have been erroneously discharged have every opportunity to present the facts of their case and reinstate the benefits they have earned.