How the Military Discards Injured Troops and Denies Them Veterans Benefits
Policy + Politics

How the Military Discards Injured Troops and Denies Them Veterans Benefits

REUTERS/Kyle Grillot

“Bill” was a combat Marine who served in the Iraq War and received multiple medals and commendations. He later suffered memory loss and PTSD, which he attributes to long-term doses of un-prescribed medications the military provided, including amphetamines.

Back home, Bill was accused by a fellow Marine of using an illegal drug, questioned without an attorney and threatened with prison before signing a confession and being handed an Other Than Honorable (OTH) discharge.

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When he went to fill out benefits paperwork at a Veterans Affairs office, he was told he was ineligible because of his OTH discharge. The OTH also put a cloud over his job prospects and eventually he had to depend financially on his family to survive. After working three jobs and putting himself through school, he challenged the VA system and eventually was awarded a 60 percent disability.

Bill was one of three former soldiers cited by the authors of a study released this week by the Costs of War Project at Brown University that examines why the number of “bad paper” discharges – which result in vets being denied VA health care, education and housing support and other benefits -- has grown from 5.5 percent during the Gulf War era to 6.5 percent since America went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Now there are almost 125,000 post-9/11 vets, many suffering from service-related conditions, who are without benefits, the study says.

Aside from Honorable discharges -- which can be handed out by a commanding officer without a service member having legal representation or a medical evaluation, as is the case with Bad Conduct and Dishonorable Discharges – other bad paper discharges are frequently being used as a means to get rid of troops exhibiting deep-seated physical and mental health conditions instead of giving them access to physiologic and psychological rehabilitation, according to the report.

“And not coincidentally,” writes Ali Tayyeb, a health care scholar at the University of San Diego, and Jennifer Greenberg, a fellow at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, “veterans with ‘bad papers’ are among those…with higher needs for postwar assistance.” These vets are “over-represented” in studies of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI), suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, sexual assault/trauma, incarceration and homelessness.

Tayyeb said in an email to The Fiscal Times that he had found no evidence that the frequent use of Other Than Honorable discharges was encouraged or directed by the Defense Dept.

“The priority of the commanding officer is to be mission capable and full strength of troops,” says Tayyeb, a Navy veteran. “There is no temporary replacement program in the military, so some commanding officers find the quickest way to get rid of the service member who [is] unfortunately… discharged with a general or Other than Honorable discharge for infractions.”

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In May, a General Accounting Office report cited Defense Dept. data showing that 62 percent -- or a total of 57,141, of the 91,764 service members separated for misconduct from 2011 through 2015 -- had been diagnosed within the two years before being cashiered with PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), or “certain other conditions that could be associated with misconduct.”

Some 16 percent of the 57,141 troops were specifically diagnosed with PTSD or TBI. Other service members may have had such conditions, but they went undiagnosed. The GAO said that the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines might not have accounted for service-related mental health issues before giving troops misconduct discharges.

The case of “Donna,” a former Army soldier whose story was included in the Costs of War study, represents a particularly disturbing facet of OTH discharges – the release of troops who have been sexually assaulted.

Donna, the study says, was assaulted more than once by fellow soldiers but found herself ostracized after reporting the first incident. She did not report the second incident and sought mental health care. She said she was called into the office of her commanding officer, who knew the details of her assault even though she had shared them only with her military mental health care provider.

Donna was eventually separated from the military “with a narrative summary that described her as having a ‘personality disorder,’” according to the study. Although she was given a General Discharge Under Honorable Conditions and qualified for VA benefits, she said she found the mental health services offered by the VA “more traumatic” than the assault. The study said she is isolated and unable to leave her home due to PTSD and deep depression.

The Costs of War study cited a 2016 DOD report that found one-third of victims who reported sexual assaults were discharged within seven months, and of them, 25 percent were separated for misconduct with a disproportionate number receiving OTH discharges.

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Under new guidelines announced on Tuesday, Veterans Affairs Dept. emergency rooms will be open to vets with mental health issues starting on July 5 in recognition that a significant number may have been “improperly separated from the military,” The Military Times reported.

In a statement, VA Secretary David Shulkin, who is a physician, said, “Suicide prevention is my top clinical priority. We want these former service members to know there is someplace they can turn if they are facing a mental health emergency, whether it means urgent care at a VA emergency department, a Vet Center or through the Veterans Crisis Line.”

The VA estimates that 20 vets commit suicide every day.

In March, Shulkin announced that the VA would expand emergency mental health care for “bad paper” vets, and the move to start doing just that one day after Independence Day makes good on his pledge.

The Costs of War study calls the Shulkin initiative “a watershed moment” but says “more expansive changes” are necessary, including de-incentivizing commanding officers from handing out administrative discharges.