Lawsuit argues veterans with substance use disorders should be eligible for exit upgrades

Capt. Ioana Horotan, staff psychiatrist at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital at Fort Campbell, Ky., speaks with a soldier about a substance use disorder in April 2021. (Fort Public Affairs Office Campbell)

WASHINGTON — An Army veteran filed a lawsuit Thursday arguing that his substance use disorder in the military should be considered a mental health issue that would qualify him for an upgrade to his dishonorable discharge.

Mark Stevenson, 63, applied for a discharge upgrade in 2020, but the Army Board for Corrections to Military Records denied his request. The lawsuit alleges the board failed to adhere to a 2017 policy that requires it to give ‘liberal consideration’ to veterans who seek to improve their other than honorable discharges, also known as ‘bad paper’ “, in situations where a service-related medical condition could have resulted in their misconduct.

The policy has been applied to cases in which veterans were dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, or military sexual trauma when they separated from the military. If successful, the lawsuit filed Thursday could also make it easier for other veterans with substance use disorders to get upgrades.

“Substance use disorders are mental health issues,” said Dena Shata, a law student at Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic, who is representing Stevenson in the case. . “The military’s choice to state otherwise goes against the clear language of the binding guidelines. The move harms drug-addicted veterans and “bad papers,” a group already doubly stigmatized.

Stevenson enlisted in 1977 at the age of 19 and deployed to a base in the western part of Germany. His unit was tasked with missile defense near the border with East Germany, then occupied by the Soviet Union.

According to the lawsuit, Stevenson arrived at the base during a time of heightened anti-American sentiment in the region and heightened risk of terrorist attacks against American targets by far-left groups. Stevenson, who is black, also faced widespread discrimination and harassment from fellow soldiers and the local German population, the lawsuit says.

These factors led Stevenson to develop anxiety, which he treated with whiskey, hashish, and eventually heroin. Stevenson went AWOL three times and was kicked out of the military with a less than honorable discharge.

“I made some serious mistakes,” Stevenson said in a statement. “I was young, terrified and had easy access to more alcohol and drugs than I knew what to do with.”

After the military, Stevenson struggled for decades with drug addiction and homelessness. Because of his other than honorable discharge, he had “no recourse within the veterans system” at the time, the lawsuit says. Non-honorable discharges prevent veterans from receiving certain health and education benefits, as well as preferential hiring and tax benefits.

In 2002, Stevenson checked himself into a rehabilitation center in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He was treated for his substance use disorder and has been sober for almost 20 years. He remarried, graduated, and became a certified addiction counselor to help other veterans.

“I took responsibility for my actions,” Stevenson said. “I mended relationships in my life and became a mentor to other veterans and others struggling with addiction. A second chance would mean everything to me.

Stevenson requested a release upgrade in 2020 and was denied in December 2021. The lawsuit alleges that the Army Board’s decision for corrections to military records was “inconsistent with legal, medical, scientific and even soldiers of mental health conditions”.

The lawsuit was filed in the US District Court in Connecticut. The court recently heard other cases filed by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic regarding leave upgrades.

In February, the court ordered the Navy to review and potentially upgrade thousands of general and other-than-honorable discharges dating back to 2012. As part of a legal settlement, the Navy’s Discharge Review Board Navy has agreed to review thousands of cases in which upgrades were denied despite evidence. veterans with health issues at the time of their discharge.

The court approved a similar settlement in a class action lawsuit against the military last spring.

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