On Veterans Day this year, in a nation now grateful for military service of all kinds, nearly 500,000 former military personnel are not included in our official expressions of gratitude.
These forgotten men and women have had the misfortune of leaving active service with what is called “bad paper”. This means that they were demobilized under “other than honorable” conditions, a decision taken without the benefit of consistent standards applying to personnel decisions by all branches of the military or even individual commanders.
In civilian life, when a coal miner or construction worker is fired from dangerous work – for cursing a supervisor, fighting with a colleague, or engaging in other inappropriate behavior – his Job loss does not make them ineligible to receive state or federal workers’ compensation for a documented occupational injury or illness (such as black lung or asbestosis).
Yet, in every branch of the U.S. military, when you are accused of uniform misconduct, the punishment is the loss of similar benefits, including Veterans Administration (VA) health care, allowances. ‘disability and access to GI Bill programs that make higher education. and more affordable housing for those who served.
Among those affected by this disqualification are many men and women who need specialized treatment for traumatic brain injury or PTSD they contracted during repeated deployments in combat or during military sexual assaults. Soldiers who might have performed well before suffering such physical and mental injuries often misbehave because of them – fighting, becoming AWOL, or abusing prescription drugs and alcohol. The result may be an “other than honorable” discharge that denies them further VA care.
A marine model
Consider, for example, the experience of ex-Marine Tyson Manker, 36, now the principal plaintiff in a class action lawsuit 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 reviewing “bad paper” cases “is currently denying upgrades even to veterans with clear diagnoses of PTSD whose enlistments have ended by a single instance of relatively minor misconduct “.
Manker is one of those veterans today, but fifteen years ago his record was exemplary. He was the highest rated marine in his platoon, the first promoted to corporal, and then, during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he was in charge of his own squad.
Upon completion of his combat deployment, Manker received a one-page questionnaire to screen for post-traumatic stress disorder. As reported by the Times, his completed form revealed personal exposure “to almost every type of trauma listed, including seeing civilians and Marines dead, killing enemy combatants and civilians, and having nightmares and hyper-vigilance.”
There was no follow-up response from the Marines. Yet his commanding officer acted much faster when Manker was caught smoking marijuana in the United States, near the end of his enlistment period. His “non-honorable” release brought him back to civilian life, without any of the social supports provided by VA coverage and GI Bill benefits. This is a fate shared by 125,000 other post-September 11 veterans.
Fortunately, Manker had “friends and family who cared for his well-being,” during a period of personal woe that included “a random and nearly fatal knife attack.” He was able to get expensive private treatment for anger, depression, suicidal thoughts, and drug addiction caused by PTSD. With the help of student loans, Manker enrolled in college and law school, becoming a licensed lawyer and professor of business law in Illinois.
In 2016, he was the national veterans coordinator for Bernie and also ran for district attorney in a heavily Republican county in rural Illinois. His platform called for greater use of court diversion programs for veterans guilty of petty crimes. He is currently working on a book on the history of veterans benefits, pending a federal judge’s ruling on the government’s motion to dismiss his class action lawsuit.
An unprecedented abandonment
Manker’s campaign to get justice for veterans with “bad paper” has been embraced by veterans organizations like Swords to Plowshares in San Francisco, a major source of private aid for unemployed veterans or homeless.
A recent report by Swords found that disqualifications of veterans, based on bad papers, now affect “6.5% of all who have served since 2001, compared to 2.8% of Vietnam-era veterans and 1 , 7% of WWII veterans ”.
“At no time in history,” the report notes, “have a greater proportion of veterans been denied basic services to treat and compensate service-related injuries. (To see https://www.swords-to-plowshares.org/2016/03/30/Underserved/)
A remedy for what Swords calls a “historically unprecedented abandonment of American veterans” was offered to the Obama administration three years ago by the Yale Law School experts who are now assisting Manker. They produced a legal note stating that “the president has the legal authority to pardon veterans with non-honorable discharge (OTH) whose misconduct stems from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and others. mental health problems, including pre-existing conditions. “
Instead, during Obama’s second term, his defense secretary only asked some of the DOD boards that are reviewing discharge upgrade requests to “give more liberal consideration.” claims that include evidence of PTSD ”.
In response to high suicide rates among veterans, Donald Trump’s First Secretary of Veterans Affairs has authorized the provision of emergency mental health services for up to ninety days to veterans who are not released. honorable.
The measure was extended by Congress in 2018, but the sponsors of the legislation and some veterans groups have criticized the way 477,000 eligible veterans were made aware of their new limited access to the VA. Nationally, less than one percent of veterans with “bad papers” initially received short-term mental health treatment.
Additionally, as VA unions have complained, the administration has not sought additional funding or the staff needed to handle the larger number of new patients who could use the program, if they could find out. The narrow clinical parameters of the program have left VA therapists with no way to deal with service-related physical conditions, such as chronic pain, which can trigger depression, suicidal tendencies, or substance abuse in long-deprived veterans. VA care.
Heal the injustices of the past
The current crop of Democratic presidential primary candidates is in a rush to improve that Obama / Trump record. During his nomination campaign in 2016, Bernie Sanders, former chair of the Senate Veterans Committee, hosted an event for veterans in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. where, according to Manker, he expressed support for the use of presidential pardon powers to remedy the injustice of bad paper.
This time around, with four veterans in the original field of candidates, several other potential opponents of Trump have raised the issue. In a recent interview with Task and objective, a military affairs publication, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said:
“No current or former military member should be denied a period of mental health care. Veterans who suffer from service-related PTSD and who currently have bad papers should have their discharges improved so they can receive the care and VA benefits we owe them. In the future, active duty members with a service-related behavioral health issue should not receive a poor quality paper release. (https://taskandpurpose.com/pete-buttigieg-interview)
At a Vote Vets forum, held in New Hampshire in September, California Senator Kamala Harris was less specific. But she agreed that “people with PTSD tend to act out,” so their bad behavior in uniform shouldn’t prevent them from receiving VA treatment later.
Meanwhile, the current holder of the presidential pardon power has slammed that saber on behalf of the men in uniform, whose conduct has certainly been less than honorable. Last spring, Donald Trump pardoned Michael Behenna, a former army officer convicted of killing an Iraqi prisoner.
As Mark Bowden reports in Atlantic This month, the White House also “asked the Justice Department to prepare pardon documents for a number of U.S. military personnel and contractors who have been charged with murder and desecration of dead bodies, including Chief of Special Ops Edward Gallagher, a Navy Seal who was accused by himself. members of the team for fatally stabbing a teenage ISIS prisoner and shooting unarmed civilians.
Since then, Gallagher has been acquitted of the murder but found guilty of posing for a photo with an ISIS fighter killed on his fifth combat deployment. Navy officials, clearly intimidated by Trump’s personal interference in this controversial affair, ended up punishing Gallagher with a brief pay cut and a one-grade downgrade that will reduce his pension amount, when ‘he will retire.
Via Twitter, Trump congratulated Gallagher on his acquittal, saying, “Happy, I was able to help. Sadly, these are not words that hundreds of thousands of vets with bad papers will soon hear from this president, whose lawyers continue to fight the cases of Tyson Manker and others like him.
(Suzanne Gordon is the author of War Injuries: How the VA Provides Health, Healing, and Hope to the Nation’s Veterans. Steve Early is a longtime labor activist and journalist. They are collaborating on a book on Veterans Affairs and can be contacted at [email protected].)
Filed under: National Policy