Army to review discharges for soldiers kicked out for suicide attempts and sexual assault trauma
By Alex Horton November 18, 2020 at 1:27 p.m. EST
Thousands of traumatized veterans kicked out of the Army achieved a legal victory Wednesday after the Army agreed to review punitive discharges linked to mental health and sexual assault trauma, potentially unlocking care for those struggling in their post-military lives.
In a lawsuit filed against Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy, a class of veterans argued that the Army should overhaul its process of reviewing discharge upgrade requests and review past denials under more generous guidelines.
The Army agreed to a settlement that would achieve that, the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School said, with an approval pending by a federal judge.
The changes would affect tens of thousands of Army veterans who served since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks who were discharged for behavior stemming from post-traumatic stress, sexual assault and traumatic brain injuries, the clinic said. In some cases, suicide attempts have led to punishment and dismissals instead of care.
Receiving other-than-honorable discharges has sent many veterans into a downward spiral by barring health care and resources such as the GI Bill, according to advocates for veterans, who describe the Army Discharge Review Board process as an opaque and complex hurdle that can be difficult to overcome.
Steve Kennedy, an Iraq War veteran and plaintiff in the case, said trauma caused issues such as going AWOL or suicide attempts for many veterans he knows.
“All of them were discharged for symptoms of mental health conditions and then stripped of the very benefits that may have helped them heal,” he said on a news call announcing the settlement. “Now they will have the chance for justice.”
The settlement is a culmination of years of advocacy by veterans seeking to overhaul how the military handles discharges.
Other-than-honorable discharges, known colloquially as “bad paper discharges” for the lifetime of negative consequences they can portend, have haunted veterans with mental health issues since the Vietnam War, said Kristofer Goldsmith, who received a bad paper discharge from the Army.
Goldsmith was tasked on his 2005 Iraq deployment with photographing bodies, having been mutilated by torture, in mass graves. Months before he was scheduled to leave the Army in 2007, a panic attack, heavy drinking and a painkiller bender hastened a suicide attempt, he said.
Instead of receiving care, Goldsmith awoke in a daze and handcuffed to a gurney, he said. He was kicked out of the Army with bad paper, and his discharge allowed for some VA care but made him ineligible for education benefits under the GI Bill.
Job prospects with that discharge were dim in the midst of a recession in 2008, he said, coupled with the indignities of the review board Goldsmith said concluded that he could not prove that his PTSD was related to his combat experience.
“That trauma probably has led to suicides,” Goldsmith said of board denials. “I think this settlement is going to save lives.” Goldsmith received an upgrade in 2019 after repeated denials and now advocates for veterans seeking a similar outcome.
The Pentagon in 2017 clarified that “liberal consideration” should favor veterans seeking upgrades for discharges that stemmed from trauma such as sexual assault and PTSD, but it was not retroactive to those who were already denied upgrades.
Wednesday’s settlement will force the Army review board to automatically reconsider all applications submitted after April 17, 2011, that involve mental health conditions but did not receive the upgrade requested, the Yale veterans clinic said.
It will also mandate that the Army give notice to veterans who submitted such requests between Oct. 7, 2001, and April 2011, inviting them to reapply.
Moving forward, the board will include new language in its manuals and decisional documents that would “require in-depth consideration of mental health factors,” the clinic said. Advocates are hopeful changes within the Army will spur other branches to make similar reforms.
“It is a truly historic step forward after many years of fighting and working for fairness and justice for veterans given less-than-honorable discharges through no fault of their own,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said on the news call.
A study released in March found that the Department of Veterans Affairs has improperly turned away many thousands of veterans who may have qualified for medical care at their facilities.
Bad paper discharges make it less likely that veterans can receive VA care, but the agency is required to look for mitigating circumstances, such as behavioral issues tied to trauma, when it decides to accept those veterans.
Some veterans have gone decades without trying to receive care at VA, the Veterans Law and Disability Benefits Clinic at Harvard Law School concluded, after misconceptions about qualification and extenuating circumstances brewed within the agency itself.