When we talked recently about veterans and prison, Sister Kateri Koverman told me about the veterans she encountered during her time as a social worker with Catholic Relief Services during the Vietnam War. “Many of them were less-than-honorably discharged, which for me is a very sad reality,” she said. An other-than-honorable discharge can be triggered by many things, but is usually the result of a pattern of behavior considered unbefitting a service member: violence against other service members, drug abuse, security violations — even adultery.
Sister Koverman’s experience during the war has given her deep perspective into her work with incarcerated veterans today. “Having been in Vietnam, I know well that so much about how an incident is written up [in the military] depends on your commanding officer. You could have the same action and one officer would say, ‘Go get a good night’s sleep and we’ll talk about this tomorrow,’ while somebody else might say, you know, “That’s cause for Article 15′” — non-judicial punishment. “Those things are with you for life.”
Veterans with other-than-honorable discharges who are not locked up are still in a sort of prison: They do not always qualify for Department of Veterans Affairs disability compensation. For many of them, post-traumatic stress disorder can be at least partly responsible for whatever led to the other-than-honorable discharge in the first place — the very status that could disqualify them from assistance to treat the PTSD.
We’ve covered the delays that benefits-eligible veterans are experiencing as they file disability claims to a badly backlogged VA, but we have not talked to or heard from veterans denied the opportunity to engage in the system at all.
In The New York Times earlier this month, James Dao reported on a Vietnam veteran who is part of a class-action lawsuit seeking to get other-than-honorable discharges for Vietnam veterans upgraded because, the plaintiffs assert, the behavior that led to their discharges was a reaction to the trauma from their combat experience.
From the story:
“The suit raises two thorny issues that could affect thousands of Vietnam veterans: Can they be given a diagnosis of PTSD retroactively, to their time in service, though the disorder was not identified until 1980? And if they can, should recently instituted policies intended to protect troops with PTSD be applied retroactively to their cases?”
The Times followed Dao’s story with an editorial called “A Question of Honor, Fairness and PTSD.” The suit on behalf of the Vietnam veterans has been helped along by Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic. The New York Times editorial points out that “Yale students found that more than 250,000 Vietnam-era veterans had other-than-honorable discharges, and thousands probably had PTSD.” It goes on to assert that “what the plaintiffs are seeking seems only fair — that the military adopt ‘consistent and medically appropriate standards’ to consider PTSD when reviewing discharges.”
As for to-be-discharged service members in today’s conflicts, Dao reports:
” …under rules put in place during the Iraq war, troops who say they have PTSD must be given medical examinations before they are forced out of the military, to ensure that problematic behavior is not linked to the disorder. If they are given a PTSD diagnosis, service members may still receive an honorable discharge.”
Even so, stories abound of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffering from PTSD and still being kicked to the other-than-honorable curb. David Philipps dealt with some of these stories in great detail in his book, “Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home” (highly recommended reading). And in an investigation by The Seattle Times published in August, Hal Berton reported on the “more than 20,000 men and women who exited the Army and Marines during the past four years with other-than-honorable discharges that hamstring their access to VA health care and may strip them of disability benefits.” He describes their circumstances:
“Some were booted out of the military before they deployed.
“Others served in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, then struggled upon their return with drug abuse, unauthorized leaves and other misconduct that placed them among the most troubled members of the generation of veterans who fought in the long wars launched after 9/11.”
My colleagues and I would like to hear stories of veterans who were other-than-honorably discharged as we work to understand the scope of the problem. If you were given an other-than-honorable discharge and feel that the decision was unjust — or that it was related to your struggles with PTSD or the effects of traumatic brain injury — please take a few minutes to fill out this questionnaire.
If you have friends or family who have a story to tell, please share a link to this story with them.