The U.S. Defense Department has taken steps to allow more veterans with so-called "bad paper" discharges to apply to have their status reviewed and potentially changed.
In guidance issued Monday, the Pentagon extended beyond 15 years the time in which veterans can seek a change to their separation status if the discharge was related to sexual assault, sexual harassment or a mental health condition. A previous change had removed the time cap for discharges related to traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The policy is meant to ease the burden on veterans and give them a reasonable opportunity to establish the extenuating circumstances of their discharge, Air Force Lt. Col. Reggie Yager, the acting director of legal policy in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, said in a press release.
"Liberal consideration, in our view, is the right balance to ensure we are making fact-based decisions while also giving appropriate leeway to the challenges posed by these invisible wounds," he said in the release.
It wasn't immediately clear how many veterans could be affected by the policy update.
During a five-year period through fiscal 2015, 13,282 service members received an "other-than-honorable" discharge and thus couldn't receive treatment at the Veterans Affairs Department -- even though they had been diagnosed with PTSD, TBI or another condition that could be associated with misconduct, according to a May report from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
Thousands more veterans have been discharged for personality disorders.
In the past, veterans given other-than-honorable discharges, often for minor misconduct and other behaviors that could be linked to trauma-related conditions, had 15 years to request a review of their discharge status. Guidance issued in 2014 removed that cap for those claiming PTSD or TBI. The new policy removes the cap for more veterans and directs the services' disciplinary review boards to give the same consideration to requests related to circumstances involving sexual assault and sexual harassment as requests stemming from PTSD and TBI.
"Veterans who desire a correction to their service record or who believe their discharge was unjust, erroneous, or warrants an upgrade, are encouraged to apply for review," the release states. "This guidance fills in the gaps and resolves any confusion that veterans or the review boards may have had, and it ensures a fair and equitable review of separations for all veterans," it says.
The change comes in part as a response to years of public pressure to offer recourse to veterans kicked out after sexual assault or trauma.
For example, a 2016 Human Rights Watch report found that 31,000 veterans had been discharged between 2001 and 2010 for personality disorders and 30 percent of those were women. Personality disorders, the report said, can often be linked to a sexual assault or harassment event.
The study also criticized the board process for a lack of oversight and "judicial oversight of BCMR cases is so negligible and deferential as to be nearly non-existent, providing little incentive for Boards to create credible decisions that can withstand scrutiny."
While the new rule does not fundamentally change how the boards operate, it does open the door for more discharges to be reconsidered indefinitely.
Officials with the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) called the change "a step in the right direction" but not enough. They said that the lack of direction on what "liberal consideration" means has created a problem that still needs to be addressed.
"Words matter, and for a long time, veterans and the military review board agencies have been unsure of what 'liberal consideration' actually means," said John Rowan, VVA's president. "This clarification is a step in the right direction, establishing rules that should be used now and in the future -- but it's nowhere near enough."
VVA has asked President Donald Trump to issue pardons to all veterans discharged after the 9//11 terrorist attacks without a court-martial.
Those desiring to appeal a discharge that was less than 15 years ago should complete DD Form 293, the release states, and send it to their service disciplinary review board (see contact information below).
For those over 15 years ago, veterans can complete DD Form 149 and send it to their service Military Department Boards for Correction of Military/Naval Records (BCM/NR). Addresses for those boards are on the forms.
To have their discharge upgraded, officials said, veterans will need to present evidence of a mental health condition or diagnosis, show evidence of an event, such as a sexual assault, that impacted their behavior "in a significant way" and explain how that event or condition caused their discharge, according to the release.
Although not required, the release said it's "helpful" for veterans to also submit copies of their applicable service records.
"The more information provided, the better the boards can understand the circumstances of the discharge," the release said.
Here is the contact information for each service's boards:
Air Force BCMR
Air Force DRB: