Military veterans advocates are urging President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump to pardon tens of thousands of post-9/11 service members who were discharged for infractions related to mental health.
In a letter being delivered to both men this week, Vietnam Veterans of America National President John Rowan says such a pardon will require Obama and Trump to work together on developing a plan for identifying those individuals — expected to total around 300,000 — and restore their veterans' benefits.
"Over the last 15 years of continuous warfare, our government has failed to respond appropriately to multiple, comprehensive reports of veterans being inappropriately discharged from the military," the letter states. "We implore you to at least save the current generation of America's warriors an unfairly marginal life as outcasts in the nation they have so faithfully served."
At issue is the practice of "bad paper" discharges for troops who suffered from post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma or other mental health issues.
Advocates have said that many troops kicked out of the ranks in recent years for alcohol abuse, drug use and suicide attempts should instead have received treatment for those under-diagnosed problems. Veterans with less-than-honorable discharges are ineligible for a host of government benefits, including free health care.
"They are more likely to suffer with self-medication and substance abuse, to become homeless, or incarcerated, or to die by suicide," Rowan wrote. "For many injured and ill veterans, these administrative separations and the denial of critical veterans’ benefits are a life-sentence."
Veterans can appeal those discharges, but the process is complicated, time-consuming and expensive. Instead, Rowan is asking for an upgrade in discharge status for all veterans who qualify and "to immediately grant access to PTS and TBI screening at the VA for all veterans."
VVA and other veterans groups have pushed for congressional action on the problem for months, but are now turning to Obama and Trump for immediate relief. Rowan compared the situation to President Jimmy Carter’s pardon in 1977 to individuals who had illegally avoided the draft, in an effort to unify the country in the years following the Vietnam War.
Obama offered legislation to address the problem in 2008, during his stint in the Senate. But the White House had avoided comment on the issue in recent months, despite repeated pleas from advocates.
Congress has included language in its annual defense authorization bill to review the problem and ease rules on dismissing troops showing signs of mental health problems, but supporters say that action alone won't be enough to address the problem.
VVA officials acknowledged that setting up guidelines for how to identify and screen eligible veterans will likely take months, making Trump’s participation in any such plan equally crucial.
In the past, Rowan has talked about expanding the bad paper discharge forgiveness to veterans of all eras, especially since PTS and TBI were largely unknown at the height of the Vietnam War.
"But for many of them it is too late," he wrote. "Let’s ensure that their children and grandchildren do not suffer the same fate." Follow @LeoShane
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .