“Other Than Honorable?” Veterans With “Bad Paper” Seek Long Overdue Benefits
On Veterans Day this year, in a nation now reflexively thankful for military service of all kinds, nearly 500,000 former service members are not included in our official expressions of gratitude.
In civilian life, when a coal miner or construction worker gets fired from a hazardous job--for cursing out a supervisor, fighting with a co-worker, or engaging in other misbehavior--their loss of employment doesn’t render them ineligible to receive state or federal workers compensation for a documented job-related injury or illness (like black lung or asbestosis).
A Model Marine
Consider, for example, the experience of 36-year old ex-Marine Tyson Manker, now the lead plaintiff in class action litigation handled by the Veterans Legal Service Clinic at Yale. As the New York Times reported last year, this lawsuit alleges that the Navy appeals board which considers “bad paper” cases “currently denies upgrades even to veterans with clear diagnoses of PTSD whose enlistments ended with a single instance of relatively minor misconduct.”
At the end of his combat deployment, Manker was given a one-page questionnaire to screen for post-traumatic stress. As reported by the Times, his completed form disclosed personal exposure “to nearly every type of trauma listed, including seeing dead civilians and Marines, killing enemy fighters and civilians, and experiencing nightmares and hyper vigilance.”
There was no follow up response from the Marines. Yet his commander acted much faster when Manker was caught smoking marijuana back in the U.S., near the end of his enlistment period. His “other than honorable” discharge, pitched him back into civilian life, with none of the social supports that VA coverage and GI bill benefits provide. That’s a fate shared by 125,000 other post-9/11 veterans.
An Unprecedented Abandonment
Manker’s campaign for justice for vets with “bad paper” has been embraced by veterans’ organizations like Swords to Plowshares in San Francisco, a major source of private help for former military personnel who are jobless or homeless.
A recent Swords report, found that veteran benefit disqualifications, based on bad paper discharges, now affect “6.5% of all who served since 2001, compared to 2.8% of Vietnam Era veterans and 1.7% of World War II era veterans.”
“At no point in history,” the report notes, “has a greater share of veterans been denied basic services intended to care and compensate for service-related injuries. (See https://www.swords-to-plowshares.org/2016/03/30/Underserved/)
One remedy to what Swords calls an “historically unprecedented abandonment of America’s veterans” was proposed to the Obama Administration three years ago by the Yale Law School experts now assisting Manker. They produced a legal memo arguing that “the President has the legal authority to pardon veterans with an other-than-honorable (OTH) discharge whose misconduct stemmed from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues, including pre-existing conditions.”
Instead, during Obama’s second term, his Secretary of Defense only directed some of the DOD administrative boards that consider discharge upgrade requests to “give more liberal consideration to applications that include evidence of PTSD.”
In response to high veteran suicide rates, Donald Trump’s first Secretary of Veterans Affairs authorized the delivery of emergency mental health services for up to ninety days to veterans with other than honorable discharges.
This measure was expanded by Congress in 2018, but sponsors of that legislation and some veterans’ groups were critical of how 477,000 eligible veterans were notified of their new but limited VA access. Nationwide, less than one percent of veterans with “bad paper” initially benefited from any short-term mental health treatment.
Plus, as VA unions complained, the Administration did not seek any additional funding or staff necessary to handle the larger number of new patients who might use the program, if they could find out about it. The narrow clinical parameters of the program left VA therapists with with no way to address service-related physical conditions, like chronic pain, that can trigger depression, suicidal tendencies, or substance abuse among veterans long denied VA care.
Curing Past Injustice
The current crop of Democratic presidential primary candidates are being pressed to improve on that Obama/Trump record. During his 2016 campaign for the nomination, Bernie Sanders, former chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, held a veterans’ event in Gettysburg, PA. where, according to Manker, he expressed support for using presidential pardon powers to cure the injustice of bad paper.
This time around, with four veterans in the original field of candidates, several other would-be opponents of Trump have addressed the issue. In a recent interview with Task and Purpose, a military affairs publication, Mayor Pete Buttigieg declared that:
“No current or former military member of the military should ever be denied mental health care period. Veterans who have service-related PTSD and currently have bad paper discharges ought to have their discharges upgraded so they can receive the VA care and benefits that we owe them. Going forward, active duty service members with a service-related behavior health issue should not receive a bad paper discharge. (https://taskandpurpose.com/pete-buttigieg-interview)
In the meantime, the current wielder of presidential pardon power has been rattling that saber on behalf of men in uniform, whose conduct has definitely been less than honorable. Last Spring, Donald Trump pardoned Michael Behenna, an ex-army officer convicted of killing an Iraqi prisoner.
Suzanne Gordon is the author of Wounds of War: How the VA Delivers Health, Healing, and Hope to the Nation’s Veterans. Steve Early is a longtime labor activist and journalist. They are collaborating on a book about veterans’ affairs and can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com
Thank you to the writers for sending this to Portside.