WASHINGTON — Veterans advocates are hopeful that more veterans with “bad paper” dismissals will be able to upgrade their discharge status now that defense officials have released clearer guidance of how to handle a host of mental health and injury cases.
The new memo, released Monday by the Pentagon’s personnel and readiness office, states that reviewers must take into consideration “conditions resulting from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, sexual assault or sexual harassment” when deciding whether to upgrade a veterans’ status.
Veterans groups say that’s important because for the last three years, many of those cases have languished in the review process or been thrown out completely because of a more narrow reading of reasons why other-than-honorable discharges can be overturned.
“We’re finally beginning to see specifics on how they’re planning to make things right for some veterans with bad-paper,” said John Rowan, president of Vietnam Veterans of America. “Words matter, and for a long time, veterans and the military review board agencies have been unsure of what ‘liberal consideration’ actually means.”
In 2014, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered military review boards to use liberal consideration when reviewing veterans discharge appeals, given criticism from outside groups that tens of thousands of troops maybe have been unfairly kicked out of the ranks because of undiagnosed PTSD, TBI or related health issues.
But VVA officials said that since then, application of Hagel’s order has been inconsistent. In some cases, reviewers have rejected evidence of sexual trauma or ignored indications of PTSD. In others, they’ve had different standards for veterans of different services or different eras.
The new clarification is designed to fix that. It specifies what conditions to look for in appeals cases, and instructs reviewers to decide if that issue may excuse or mitigate the reasons why troops were kicked out of the military.
“This memo is filled with signals that there may yet be hope for the thousands of veterans who have been unfairly suffering the effects of bad-paper,” said Kris Goldsmith, president of High Ground Veterans Advocacy. “It’s what we’ve been asking for from the Pentagon for years.”
The difference between an honorable and other-than-honorable discharge can have significant ramifications for a veteran.
Education benefits, job-training programs and certain health services aren’t available to veterans with other-than-honorable status. Advocates say those individuals are also less likely to get help for serious mental health issues — even if they developed while serving — and are more likely to commit suicide.
A Government Accountability Office report released in May found that nearly one in four troops booted for misconduct between 2011 and 2015 suffered from PTSD, traumatic brain injury or other mental health conditions that may have warranted a different discharge status.
While praising the new classifications, VVA and other advocates said they still will lobby the White House to grant pardons to post-9/11 veterans who can show they unjustly received other-than-honorable discharges, calling it a more comprehensive fix to the problem.
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.