'Dirty, Embarrassing Secret:' Veterans with PTSD Struggle to Shed Stigma of Bad Paper Discharges

Infantry soldier Camp McGregor
The crisp silhouette of a 2-113th Infantry soldier is formed as the sun goes down marking the beginning of the night shift at Camp McGregor, New Mexico. (Jacqueline Robinson/New Jersey National Guard)

A sailor helped prevent the sinking of the destroyer John S. McCain. A Marine received the Purple Heart when his vehicle was blown off the road in Afghanistan.

Both now bear the lifetime stigma of having their service branded as "other than honorable" by the military.

They are among thousands of veterans cut off from Department of Veterans Affairs benefits by so-called "bad paper" discharges despite a Defense Department directive and an act of Congress ordering discharge review boards to give "liberal" consideration to upgrades for those with diagnoses of post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury.

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The sailor, who spoke to Military.com on condition that his name be withheld, was a 19-year-old seaman culinary specialist when the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer McCain collided with the Liberian-flagged chemical tanker Alnic MC at 5:24 a.m. Aug. 21, 2017.

"I was in the galley on the grill," he recalled, when the bulbous bow of the tanker bashed a 28-foot hole in the port side of the McCain, which was east of the Strait of Malacca on the way to a port call in Singapore.

"It felt like an earthquake, pretty much this huge thump. Everything got tossed around, everything was shaking," he said. "And yeah, that's when we figured out we got hit and the ship was sinking."

He and the rest of the crew went to general quarters in a frantic rescue effort, which the Navy credited with keeping the listing destroyer afloat.

"We had to pretty much do what we were assigned in that situation to pretty much save the ship," the sailor said.

"The crew fought back against progressive flooding across numerous spaces for hours on end. Facing constant peril from flooding, electrocution, structural damage and noxious fumes, these sailors prevented further loss of life and ultimately saved the ship," the Navy said in a release from the time.

Ten sailors were killed and five injured in the collision. The teenager who had been working the grill knew them all.

"The crew was about 300 people so I would see those people every day when we were underway. We just ran into them all the time -- talk to them, hang out, things like that," he said.

The memories of the collision haunted him, and he would eventually be diagnosed with PTSD.

"I got other than honorable [when I was discharged]," he said. "It's because I popped on a urinalysis test for smoking weed. And that was just due to my mental state at the time -- wasn't good. And I didn't know how to cope by myself."

The Marine who received the Purple Heart had similar episodes of self-medication with drugs and alcohol, which also resulted in an other-than-honorable discharge.

He said he joined the Marines at age 17 with thoughts of making it a career, "maybe security guard at an embassy."

In 2009, he was deployed to Afghanistan with 8th Engineer Support Battalion out of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. In October 2009, he was the turret gunner on a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle that hit an improvised explosive device in northern Helmand province. "Blew the doors off, but there were no fatalities," he said.

He was airlifted for medical treatment with a concussion and two ruptured spinal discs, he said.

It was hard for him to stand for long periods of time, he said, but the medical teams decided he could return to duty. "I went back out on missions," he said.

Back at Lejeune, he was separated from his platoon, assigned to administrative work and told that he likely would not be allowed to continue in the Marine Corps, he said.

"I started drinking and not for fun," he explained. He also began using the designer drug "Spice," a cannabis derivative often called "synthetic pot."

At the same time, he was undergoing treatment for PTSD and traumatic brain injury. But he insists that, "My choices, my actions, were not related to any injuries."

His actions led to a month in the brig and an other-than-honorable discharge. "I was three months shy of being discharged anyways," he said.

Since leaving the Marines, he has gone through bouts of homelessness and difficulties in finding and keeping a job, he said.

"There's only so much you can do unless your boss is considerate of your situation," he explained. "Not many employers really look at veterans in a positive light unless you have an honorable discharge for work purposes."

The McCain sailor and the Marine were among five veterans interviewed by Military.com on condition of anonymity. They all received other-than-honorable discharges and are being assisted in seeking upgrades to their discharges by the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

The free program is sponsored by the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust and backed by the American Legion, Paralyzed Veterans of America and the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

Its goal is to help veterans gather documents and evidence for discharge review boards to support an application for an upgrade; it also assists veterans in appeals when such a request is rejected.

The process can be cumbersome and subject to lengthy delays, said Danica Gonzalves, a lawyer and program director for the consortium's Discharge Upgrade Program. "It's a very frustrating process for advocates and veterans," she said.

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Bad Paper Catch-22

About 200,000 service members are discharged each year; the vast majority receive honorable discharges, entitling them to VA benefits, health care, home loans and the GI Bill for education.

Other types of discharges carry stigma and may limit or restrict post-service benefits. A general discharge under honorable conditions usually means the veteran's service was satisfactory but might have involved minor misconduct. Those who receive that discharge are eligible for all veterans benefits except the GI Bill.

An other-than-honorable discharge means the veteran is unlikely to be eligible for any veterans benefits, but the VA can make exceptions for things such as disability compensation after a "character of service" review, which is different from a discharge upgrade.

In documents, the Army Discharge Review Board defined other-than-honorable discharges as "the worst possible discharge that you can receive with an administrative separation and is usually given for serious misconduct or Chapter 10 (Discharge in Lieu of Court-Martial). This discharge is not honorable service or duty. Typically awarded for felonies, AWOL, desertion, and drug offenses."

More than 51,400 discharges under other-than-honorable conditions were issued for active-duty personnel from fiscal 2010 through 2020, according to the Defense Manpower Data Center.

There are also two kinds of discharges considered punitive.

A veteran who received a bad-conduct discharge through a special court-martial might still be eligible for some benefits after a VA "character of service" review. Those who received such a discharge through a general court-martial are not.

Veterans who receive a dishonorable discharge, reserved for the most serious offenses, are ineligible for all benefits.

In 2014, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued a memo directing the service discharge review boards to give "liberal consideration" to upgrades to veterans who could show that they had been diagnosed with PTSD or TBI during their time in uniform.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., was the main author of the Fairness for Veterans Act of 2016, which essentially codified Hagel's memo into law and added that upgrade consideration should be given to victims of sexual trauma.

The bill was signed into law as an amendment to the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act by President Barack Obama. In a statement Friday to Military.com, Peters called on the military to follow the law and speed up the process.

"Bureaucratic delays can never be an excuse that prevents veterans suffering with PTSD or TBI from receiving the care they've earned," he said.

"The Fairness for Veterans legislation I authored requires that discharge review boards give liberal consideration to appeals, and I urge them to do so in a speedy manner," Peters said.

A less-than-honorable discharge, or bad paper discharge, is often given for instances of minor misconduct such as being late to formation and missing appointments -- behavior that can be seen in those suffering from PTSD, TBI and other trauma-related conditions, Peters said.

Despite the Hagel memo and the Fairness for Veterans Act, veterans groups and advocates charge that the discharge review boards have been dragging their feet on processing applications for upgrades and appeals.

The discharge review process has recently been the target of two class-action lawsuits: Kennedy v. McCarthy against the Army, and Manker v. Spencer against the Navy and Marine Corps. The suits also seek agreements by the military to review cases where upgrades are denied.

Both were filed in Connecticut federal district court on behalf of the plaintiffs by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School before Judge Charles Haight, who has previously rejected motions by the Army and Navy to dismiss the suits.

While the Manker suit is ongoing, the Army in November agreed to a settlement under which the Army Discharge Review Board will reconsider less-than-honorable discharges issued from April 2011 to November 2020.

Since many veterans are unaware that they can request an upgrade, the Army also agreed to notify those discharged from 2001 to 2011 that they had the right to apply.

Currently, there is a Catch-22 aspect to the system that in many cases denies VA mental health treatment to those who can show evidence of TBI or PTSD, said Steven Kennedy, an Iraq veteran and the main plaintiff in the suit against the Army.

"You can't get the benefits you need to actually recover from the thing that got you discharged in the first place," Kennedy said.

He noted that the Army also agreed to drop the requirement that veterans appealing a rejection of an upgrade appear in person before the board. Appeals by phone or Zoom will now be allowed. "That was one of the things I was really happy with," Kennedy said.

The settlement with the Army was the subject of a fairness hearing before Haight on March 24, but he has yet to issue his final approval.

In a statement, Alexander Conyers, deputy assistant secretary of the Army and director of the Army Review Boards Agency, said the settlement is a fair way to address soldiers' concerns but added that implementation will require more resources.

"The Army is actively gathering the necessary resources, in terms of personnel and administrative support, and taking the appropriate steps to plan for the efficient adjudication of any requests for reconsideration pursuant to this settlement," Conyers said.

The settlement, which could serve as a model for the other services, gave encouragement to William, a former Army sergeant who served from 2003 to 2012 with two tours in Iraq who is being assisted by the Veterans Consortium.

In a phone interview and in an email, he said that his other-than-honorable discharge left a stigma that to him was worse than if he had been sent to a civilian jail for drug offenses.

"I couldn't use my military service to seek employment. I would have been better off telling people I was in prison. They have programs for the formerly incarcerated," he said.

William, who asked only that his first name be used, said his first tour in Iraq was as a military police officer with the 1st Infantry Division. His problems began on his second tour after he reenlisted and was assigned to detainee operations. He said he was overcome by anxiety and depression, resulting in what he called a "suicidal episode."

He was sent back to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with a diagnosis of PTSD. Treatment amounted to "fistsful of medications," he said.

He fell into drug abuse, he said. "When somebody would say you can live your life clean and sober, I'd be like what kind of drugs are you taking that I don't know about?" he added.

William said he left the base for three months, explaining that "I just couldn't stay there anymore."

When he returned, he was given the choice of a court-martial or an other-than-honorable discharge. William said he responded, "I'm damaged goods. Just get me out."

He eventually was able to get treatment through the VA, which gave him credit for honorable service during his first enlistment. He said he has now been clean for five years, but "if you had told me five years ago that I could get clean and sober, I would have said, 'You're nuts.'"

William and others interviewed by Military.com said the worst part of having an other-than-honorable discharge is the loss of the sense of pride most veterans have, coupled with the feeling that their service didn't count.

"I have this dirty, embarrassing secret that I carry around. When I actually do find myself around other people, I avoid talking about my service because there may be too many questions. I just told my girlfriend of three years about my discharge. My family knows. No one else," William said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

Related: Army Agrees to Review Thousands of 'Bad Paper' Discharges

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