Veterans Group: Lawsuit Prompts Pentagon to Reopen Database

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Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs​ Chairman Gen. Mark Milley
FILE -- In this file photo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper, left, joined by Joint Chiefs​ Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, right, speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon in Washington, Dec. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — The Pentagon will reopen a records database that helps service members who are appealing a less-than-honorable discharge, a veterans group said Friday.

The National Veterans Legal Services Program had sued the Defense Department over a lack of access to the database, arguing that the military had been breaking federal law since April.

The database contains decisions by military review boards that grant or deny a veteran’s request to upgrade a discharge. Veterans and their lawyers study those decisions in hopes of building successful arguments of their own.

“They can make a stronger case by looking to see how other people have won,” said Bart Stichman, executive director of the organization that filed the lawsuit.

Stichman said the Pentagon has agreed to make almost all of the records available by the end of March. But he said the quality of veterans' appeals likely suffered during the last several months.

Appeals are being made at a time of growing recognition that a less-than-honorable discharge can stem from behaviors brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries.

Liberal consideration is supposed to be given to veterans with combat-related mental health conditions and to those who were sexually assaulted while in the military.

Veterans can lose some or all of the benefits that are available to them, depending on their discharge status.

Lisa Lawrence, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department, deferred comment about the lawsuit to the Department of Justice. Kristina Mastropasqua, a DOJ spokeswoman, declined to comment.

The Military Times first reported the change Wednesday.

In a recent court filing, the veterans' group said it has withdrawn a motion asking a federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, to take action. The group said the Pentagon's lawyers had “proposed certain actions that would resolve” the concerns.

In the meantime, the group's lawsuit has drawn the attention of 11 Democratic U.S. senators. They wrote a letter to military leaders Tuesday asking when the records would become available again.

“These decisions are of critical importance to veterans who received less-than-honorable or otherwise stigmatizing discharge characterizations from the military and who seek to upgrade or correct that characterization,” the letter said.

Dana Montalto, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic, told The Associated Press earlier this month that post-9/11 vets have the highest rate of receiving less-than-honorable discharges. She added some veterans can wait years to get a decision from a military review board.

The veterans' group said its lawsuit will remain pending to ensure that all military board decisions are made available. The law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth has provided pro bono legal counsel to the group.

This article was written by BEN FINLEY from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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