A recent government study concluded that about 12 percent of service members who left the military between 2011 and 2015 did so with a discharge type that will make them unable to access Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. Within that group, more than 55,000 had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or related conditions prior to discharge.
For such a disturbing report, hardly anyone in Washington seemed to notice. It’s an issue exacerbated by the Defense Department’s apparent solution of discharging these troops instead of providing proper treatment.
Being kicked out with anything less than a fully honorable discharge — despite mental health concerns, numerous deployments, a long career in service or other factors — can deprive a service member of any right to Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits.
Who is going to defend the GI Bill for these veterans?
Some of my colleagues at Vietnam Veterans of America have been fighting for veterans with “bad paper” discharges for nearly 50 years, defending the rights of veterans to be recognized for their service and receive the support that comes with that honor. It was during the Vietnam era that, thanks to the draft, administratively separating a combat veteran without access to benefits started to become the new normal.
World War II veterans had the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the GI Bill of Rights, which prevented them from receiving lifetime punishments at the whim of the person running their command. For the “Greatest Generation,” troops had the due-process rights of a court-martial before they could be stripped of essential transition benefits like health care and education.
Today, many in the military and veteran communities seem to have forgotten that history.
As we’ve become more educated on the effects of war on the mind and behavior, we’ve seen increased rates of troops receiving what amounts to lifetime punishment for minor offenses that are attributable to things like PTSD, TBI and military sexual trauma.
With budgetary restrictions implemented by sequestration and an end of the large-scale wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, commanders are under constant pressure to expeditiously remove anyone from their units who can’t perform. That’s likely a large part of the reason that instead of treating all injured, ill and sick troops medically, some are treated like criminals.
While the blanket denial of comprehensive health care and most VA benefits to most veterans with other-than-honorable discharges is almost entirely the fault of VA’s self-imposed rules, it’s Congress that created the black hole for veterans to fall into when it comes to denial of the GI Bill.
Whereas VA administers most benefits to veterans it deems “honorable” through a broken process it made up called the “ character of discharge determination,” there’s no flexibility when it comes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The legislation denies veterans discharged under honorable conditions the use of one of the most important transition benefits out there.
But just because the law is flawed doesn’t mean we can’t fix it.
Study after study have shown the disastrous effects of bad paper on veterans with PTSD. One recent report published by Brown University — " ‘Bad Papers’: The Invisible and Increasing Costs of War for Excluded Veterans" — found that bad-paper veterans “are among those veterans with higher needs for post-war assistance, being over-represented in studies on veteran [PTSD, TBI,] suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, military sexual assault/trauma, and related problems of incarceration and homelessness.”
The study also found that veterans with bad paper often self-isolate. That tendency, combined with a lack of education and job-training benefits, can lead to hopelessness, along with declines in both physical and mental health.
By denying GI Bill to veterans who have experienced PTSD, TBI and military sexual trauma, we’re failing people who volunteered to fight in a time of war, and harming our economy. Instead of lifting up veterans who would benefit most from the GI Bill, we continue to limit their opportunities to recover.
“This is another troubling example of how we are failing to grant veterans the benefits they have earned,” said U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke during a recent veterans town hall meeting in Texas. “This issue, and more importantly the larger issue of how we treat veterans with ‘bad paper discharges,’ demands immediate attention and leadership."
As the top Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee’s economic opportunity panel, O’Rourke is responding to concerns raised by Student Veterans of America and other veterans’ advocates, and is looking for partners across the aisle.
VA and Congress are finally starting to pay attention to veterans with bad paper discharges, but the reforms implemented so far aren’t enough. It’s time the veterans’ community comes together to defend the GI Bill for every service member who suffered in defense of their country.
Kristofer Goldsmith served as a forward observer with 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq in 2005 and separated from the Army at the rank of sergeant. He is the founder of High Ground Veterans Advocacy and assistant director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America. VVA’s on Twitter and Facebook.