NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- The military has failed to correct the wrongful discharges of thousands of Vietnam veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, an advocacy group says in a federal lawsuit.
Vietnam Veterans of America on Monday joined a proposed class action lawsuit in Hartford against the Army, Navy and Air Force. The lawsuit, filed last year by a veteran, says the Vietnam veterans suffered PTSD before it was recognized and were discharged under other-than-honorable conditions that made them ineligible for disability compensation and other benefits.
The lawsuit says the military has refused to review or upgrade the discharge statuses of thousands of Vietnam War-era veterans with service-related PTSD.
"People did not understand PTSD during the Vietnam era," said John Rowan, national president of Vietnam Veterans of America. "Now that we do, these servicemembers must not be denied the recognition and benefits they long ago earned."
The U.S. attorney's office, which is representing the military in the lawsuit, said it's reviewing the matter and will respond in court. A Department of Defense spokeswoman said the agency is committed to addressing concerns related to PTSD and has taken numerous steps, including conducting PTSD assessments of service members at military treatment facilities.
The initial lawsuit was filed by Vietnam veteran John Shepherd, of New Haven, who says he was diagnosed with PTSD in 2004 but has been repeatedly denied a discharge upgrade.
Shepherd and the VVA, which has about 65,000 members, are represented by Yale Law School students who work at a veterans legal services clinic. The students say since 2003 the Army has approved fewer than 2 percent of applications by Vietnam veterans claiming PTSD to upgrade discharges, compared to 46 percent for all discharge upgrade applications in recent years.
Some of the veterans denied had at least one medal or had a PTSD diagnosis from the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to the students, who analyzed the Army data.
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said he sympathizes with the veterans' concerns and has been working with the Yale Law Clinic, the Department of Defense and state and federal veterans services agencies on a more equitable process to resolve them.
"The fact that Post-Traumatic Stress was not understood during the Vietnam War era should not preclude a reconsideration now of individual cases," Blumenthal said in a statement.
The lawsuit estimates about 85,000 of the more than 250,000 Vietnam veterans discharged under other-than-honorable conditions have PTSD. The discharges were based on poor conduct such as unauthorized absence without leave, shirking, using drugs or lashing out at comrades or superior officers, conduct the lawsuit says was a symptom of underlying undiagnosed PTSD.
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can develop in a person who experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. Symptoms include flashbacks or nightmares of the traumatic event.
The veterans have experienced homelessness, prolonged unemployment and troubled relationships, the lawsuit says.
"Isolated and impoverished, they have struggled to cope not only with their war wounds but also with the shame of a bad discharge," it says.
The Army awarded Shepherd with a Bronze Star after his unit came under intense fire and he entered an enemy bunker and threw a grenade that killed several enemy soldiers, according to the lawsuit.
Shepherd developed symptoms of PTSD after blowing up the enemy bunker and later witnessing the gruesome deaths of several comrades, according to his lawsuit. Shepherd began to act strangely and was found wandering around a base in a confused state. He eventually reached a breaking point and refused to go back out into the field, the lawsuit says.
He was charged with failure to obey an order and was discharged.
Shepherd's application for a discharge upgrade was denied again in June. The Army said he failed to present convincing evidence that his misconduct 43 years ago was the result of PTSD or that his discharge was improper, but he's appealing the decision.