WASHINGTON — Veterans forced from the Navy and Marine Corps for what they say were undiagnosed mental health problems will be able move ahead with a class-action lawsuit against the military asking for denied benefits, a federal court ruled Thursday.
The move could affect thousands of so-called “bad paper” veterans who allege Defense Department officials unjustly ended their careers rather than deal with their military-related injuries.
“This decision is a victory for the tens of thousands of military veterans suffering from service-connected PTSD and TBI who are denied the support of VA resources because of an unfair discharge status,” Tyson Manker, an Iraq War veteran and plaintiff in the case, said in a statement Friday.
He called the court’s favorable ruling “further evidence of the Department of Defense’s disgraceful violation of the legal rights of the men and women who have served their country.”
The issue of improper military dismissals has grown in prominence in recent years as studies show that veterans with limited access to military benefits face greater rates of homelessness and suicide.
Veterans covered in the new lawsuit’s class would have little or no access to Veterans Affairs health care services, education benefits or other support resources because of their less-than-honorable discharge status.
However, many of those veterans argue that the infractions that led to the end of their military careers were linked to undiagnosed post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, or other service-related mental health problems. They have argued that if supervisors properly treated those issues, they may still be serving today.
Between 20 and 30 percent of troops who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have dealt with post-traumatic stress, according to Defense Department estimates.
The new ruling will allow veterans advocates an easier path in demanding relief from the Navy, the service’s review boards and other related agencies.
Last year, Pentagon officials ordered that those review boards use more discretion in evaluating veterans’ discharge status appeals when those cases involved “conditions resulting from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, sexual assault or sexual harassment.”
Officials have said the goal is to make sure missed medical problems don’t result in lost benefits or support services. But advocates for those veterans say those corrections remain slow and erratic.
The National Veterans Council for Legal Redress, which is party to the lawsuit, said that in 2017, while more than half of cases to come before the Army and Air Force review boards were granted discharge upgrades, only 16 percent of cases before the Navy board received the same consideration.
That has raised concerns from both advocates and the federal court that authorized the class action.
More information on the lawsuit is available through the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic, which is also involved in the suit.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.