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Some Vietnam vets with PTSD fight for benefits

Apr. 9, 2014 - 01:07PM   |  
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George Siders remembers his first enemy kill like it happened yesterday.

While rounding a curve on patrol in Vietnam, the 18-year-old Marine came upon a North Vietnamese soldier on the trail. Siders instinctively raised his rifle and fired, hitting his target in the forehead.

The blast, Siders said, blew the soldier’s “brain and about 2 or 3 feet of spinal cord” out his backside.

“As I walked by, I looked down and thought, ‘Man, that’s weird, it’s gray.’ I ... remember it as plain as I saw it then, that entire brain just sitting there,” Siders said.

More than 40 years later, that soldier still haunts Siders — along with the two helicopter crashes he survived during his tour, the hand-to-hand combat in which he engaged and the daily chore of retrieving the dead for body counts.

Today, the former Marine infantryman still sleeps with a loaded .45 beneath his pillow. He takes T-shirts to bed because he wakes up from nightmares in cold sweats, although he has gained some control over his unexplained outbursts and feelings of depression.

Although his symptoms, now diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, are combat-related, Siders doesn’t receive treatment from the Veterans Affairs Department.

He can’t. The “other-than-honorable” discharge he received in 1971 — for bad behavior likely related to PTSD — makes him ineligible.

“When I needed the Marine Corps the most, they turned their back on me,” Siders said. “I was pretty messed up.”

Seeking fairness

Siders and four other Vietnam veterans, along with the Vietnam Veterans of America, filed suit in March seeking to have their OTH discharges reconsidered by the Boards for Corrections of Military Records of their services.

They say the military has unfairly denied applications for discharge upgrades from those with less-than-honorable discharges who likely had PTSD when they were kicked out of service, in an era when the disorder was much less understood than it is today.

“What we are seeking is a fair review process. We are requesting the court order the board to implement medically appropriate standards for considering applications that raise PTSD” as a factor, said Virginia McCalmont, a law student intern at Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic, which represents the plaintiffs.

The suit, which the plaintiffs hope will be granted class-action status, could open the doorway for tens of thousands to have their discharges reexamined.

Along with Siders, the other plaintiffs include two Marines and two soldiers. All received high marks for service and conduct while serving in Vietnam. But all faced trouble once they came home, running afoul of regulations for going absent without leave, using drugs and assaulting fellow service members or seniors.

“These are things that are consistent with PTSD. We think it’s a very large number of people who are potentially affected by this,” McCalmont said.

Former Marine Conley Monk was 20 when he went to Vietnam. Within 24 hours of arriving, his unit was gassed — before the truck driver had been issued a gas mask.

Monk’s unit was shelled often, and he lived in fear of sniper intrusions on his base. When he transferred back to Okinawa, he began having flashbacks and nightmares. He became angry, sullen and started using drugs.

After his less-than-honorable discharge from the Marine Corps, he went back home, where he assumed he’d resume his job as a dishwasher at a local VA hospital. But with his bad paper, he was not rehired, nor could he get treatment for his mental health issues.

“I knew this angry person wasn’t me,” Monk said. “My father served in World War II, my sister was Vietnam-era. They all served well, and here I come home a broken man. If I were discharged today, my PTSD would be recognized and treated.”

'A kick in the teeth'

The Pentagon has until May 2 to respond to the suit. At a March 5 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told lawmakers he is aware of the suit and is “personally looking into it.”

Since 1993, about 5 percent of the 375 requests for discharge upgrades involving PTSD have been granted to Vietnam veterans, according to the lawsuit.

The five plaintiffs in this suit all have applied for discharge upgrades and were denied or have not heard back from their boards.

Siders applied for an upgrade in 2003. According to his paperwork, it was granted by the Board for Correction of Naval Records — but the decision was overruled by a member of the service’s general counsel staff in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

“I can’t believe one guy can just overrule an entire board like that,” Siders said. “It’s a kick in the teeth.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has pressed the Pentagon for action in the case of Monk, who lives in New Haven, Conn., as well as others in the same situation.

At the March 5 hearing, he implored Hagel to address the issue.

“Thousands of men ... were discharged with other-than-honorable status and have suffered the stigma and shame and loss of benefits — in fact, wounded twice, first on the battlefield and then in civilian life,” Blumenthal said.

“This system really needs to be changed and overhauled.”

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