Veterans advocates rallied on Capitol Hill Tuesday to urge lawmakers deal with the problem of so-called "bad paper" discharges that prevent some struggling veterans from receiving health care, and urged the White House to intervene while the legislative process drags on.
"It's disturbing to see this issue come back," said John Rowan, president and CEO of Vietnam Veterans of America. "We saw half a million questionable less-than-honorable discharges during the Vietnam era. And to think that today there are as many as 300,000 more since Sept. 11, that's a disgrace."
Senate lawmakers have already included legislation in the annual defense authorization bill to require the Defense Department to review and improve the discharge process after numerous reports of troops being forced out of the ranks without veterans benefits due to infractions like suicide attempts and substance abuse related to post-traumatic stress disorder.
Tuesday's rally was designed to encourage more lawmakers to push to keep that language in the final policy bill draft, adopting changes that would provide mental health care to nearly everyone who served in the military and ensuring that review boards see all relevant health information when deciding whether to grant or upgrade less-than-honorable discharges.
Measure sponsor Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., said he sees more than enough support in each chamber for the proposal, but also supports executive action to enact some provisions of the legislation immediately.
"The thing is just to get something done," he said. "Let's get these folks the help they have earned and deserve."
Advocates have been hopeful that President Obama might intervene on the issue for years, since he sponsored legislation on mistaken and fraudulent military discharges during his time in the Senate.
But White House officials have thus far been silent on the issue. Meanwhile, negotiations on the annual defense authorization bill have stalled on unrelated issues. Supporters called that frustrating.
"We see the suicide rate for veterans today. Why would we deny any of them mental health care?" said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., an Iraq War veteran and member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Tyson Manker, an Illinois attorney who also served in Iraq, said too many veterans are struggling after being "thrown away like a piece of garbage" by the military. He was other-than-honorably discharged by the Marine Corps after trying marijuana to help control his PTSD episodes.
"It’s time for us to stand and demand justice," he said.
Advocates want Obama to sign an executive order by Veterans’ Day stopping misconduct charges for sexual assault survivors in the ranks, granting tentative health care eligibility to all veterans before reviewing their discharge status, and easing hardship waivers for troops being dismissed for some infractions.
Peters said lawmakers can codify those changes as permanent once the legislative process concludes.
More information on the effort is available on the VVA web site.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.