PTSD affects over one-third of Iraq/Afghanistan combat veterans. Unfortunately, many servicemembers are separated on other than honorable terms for behavioral symptoms related to PTSD which disqualifies them from VA benefits, including VA healthcare. The Secretary of Defense issued a call to action in 2014 to more liberally upgrade PTSD related discharges. Yet there has been little movement.
Thousands are potential beneficiaries while only a few hundred have applied, presumably due to lack of knowledge of the possibility. This needs to change in order to help these forsaken and too often forgotten heroes.
In Need of Correction
In 2014, Yale Law published an article entitled, In Need of Correction: How the Army Board for Correction of Military Records Is Failing Veterans with PTSD. The article noted that 560,000 soldiers who served in Vietnam were discharged under less than honorable conditions. Of these 300,000 were General Discharges, but the remaining 260,000 were discharged either administratively under Other-Than Honorable (OTH), or punitively through the Courts Martial as Bad Conduct or Dishonorable (sometimes known as Undesirable) Discharges. For these veterans, these discharges serve as a perpetual scarlet letter which it is almost impossible to overcome. Those veterans who received OTH, BCD or Dishonorable discharges during service in Vietnam have experienced the following impacts;
- Ineligibility for service-connected disability compensation from the Veteran’s Administration
- No access to healthcare services through the VA
- Ineligibility for education benefits
- Ineligibility for most housing and homeless services from the VA
- Ineligibility for compensation for surviving family members
- Loss of eligibility for most civil service positions
- Loss of eligibility for employment and vocational-rehabilitation services from the VA
- Loss of eligibility for burial benefits
- Significant barriers to employment due to stigma surrounding discharge
In addition, these men and women are not even recognized as veterans by most service organizations. Despite having served in combat, some of them for more than one tour of duty, they are not even considered veterans.
When Combat-Related PTSD Drives the Discharge
The National Vietnam Veterans Re-adjustment Study (NVVRS-I, 1990) noted that 30.6% of male and 26.9% of female veterans had experienced full-blown PTSD at some point in their lives. Statistically, many of the Vietnam veterans separated under less than honorable circumstances experienced PTSD. The symptoms which characterize PTSD are often the types of behaviors that result in discharges under less than honorable conditions. The symptoms of the Disorder are such that they may drive the discharge, so to speak. Such symptoms might include;
- The tendency to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol
- Difficulty in controlling or regulating anger
- Exaggerated startle response(s) or Hyper-vigilance
Recognizing and Amending the Problem
In September of 2014, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel directed the Review Boards for all five Branches of the Military to grant “liberal consideration” for upgrade applications from veterans whose discharges were related to PTSD. Nearly 40 years following the ending of the conflicts in Southeast Asia and 34 years after the recognition of PTSD by the American Medical Association (AMA), American Psychiatric (APA) and VA’s recognition of the Disorder, it looked like tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans might finally be granted some level of recognition that had been denied to them for decades. Nearing the end of their lives, they might finally be granted a measure of peace. The Department of Defense was charged with engaging in meaningful public education efforts to notify these men and women that they might be eligible, finally, for discharge upgrades.
“Unfinished Business”, Continuing Plight of Vietnam Veterans
In September of 2015, Yale Law’s Veteran’s Clinic, working with the Vietnam Veterans of America and the National Veteran’s Council on Legal Redress decided to look at the progress made since the issuing of the Hagel Memo. The Clinic issued a memo entitled Unfinished Business: Correcting ‘Bad Paper’ for Veterans with PTSD, The findings included the following;
- The Navy and Air Force have provided very little information in response to requests for information on PTSD upgrades
- The Army provided information on 167 PTSD discharge upgrade cases post Hagel.
- A total of 201 Discharge upgrade requests were received between 2014-2015, according to the DoD
- The Department of Defense has not engaged in substantive outreach efforts.
- While rates of upgrade approval have increased seven-fold, the numbers of applicants remain very low.
- Chances for successful upgrade have increased greatly for those veterans with a diagnosis of service-connected PTSD from a recognized healthcare professional.