DoD Reconsiders Bad Discharges
BY MARY BRUZZESE
On September 3 Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel issued guidelines that affect Vietnam veterans requesting discharge upgrades because of undiagnosed PTSD. Hagel issued a memorandum offering guidance to Military Boards for Correction of Military/Naval Records (BCM/NR) when considering discharge upgrade requests by veterans claiming PTSD who received other than honorable (OTH) discharges. Hagel also said that the guidelines would be accompanied by a public campaign targeted toward veterans.
“Vietnam Veterans of America has long believed that this is the right thing to do, especially for Vietnam veterans,” VVA President John Rowan said. “Many of our brothers and sisters were inappropriately discharged under other than honorable conditions after serving their country because PTSD was not recognized at that time. And, because of their OTH discharges, they were unable to receive VA benefits.”
Hagel is calling for BCM/NR to liberalize its consideration of requests to take into account subsequent PTSD diagnoses from the VA or private physicians. This consideration is to be given to requests with records that document one or more symptoms of PTSD or related conditions. Veterans will have to prove three things: that they suffered from PTSD at the time of service, that the cause of the PTSD was service connected, and that PTSD symptoms were a factor in their misconduct.
“An OTH is a stigma,” VVA Veterans Health Council Executive Director Tom Berger said. Denial of access to VA benefits is not the only negative result of an OTH. Many veterans with OTHs also have been denied employment, as some employers consider them to be poor job candidates. For these veterans, a discharge upgrade would result in a restoration of benefits and rid them of the OTH stigma.
“Now begins the challenge of reaching out to all Vietnam veterans affected by such OTH discharges and helping them get their discharges upgraded so they can access the health care and other benefits due them,” Rowan said.
“We don’t want to offer false hope until we get more from DOD as to how they will handle this,” Berger added. “The devil is in the details. How is this going to happen? How are we going to reach out to these veterans? MSOs and VSOs need to get the word out, but how? We hope DOD will help us in our efforts.
“We estimate that some quarter million veterans have OTHs and probably one third of those veterans may have suffered from PTSD. The overarching problem is that only DOD has the list of these veterans. How do we get to them?” There are no details yet about the public campaign that Hagel said will be launched.
Another question is whether the BCM/NR will pay attention to Hagel’s directive. Upgrade requests currently take a long time, and boards typically have denied more than 90 percent of them.
Yet another question is what veterans can do if they cannot find their records. Aside from records being lost due to natural disasters such as fires, the VA has had problems with record keeping. The reevaluation of discharges also will put a serious load on service officers and others who handle veterans’ claims.
It is important to note that Hagel’s guidelines are focused on low-level misconduct. Veterans who received courts-martial for serious misconduct that resulted in bad-conduct or dishonorable discharges are not likely to be affected. In his guidelines, Hagel directed corrections boards to “exercise caution in weighing evidence of mitigation in cases in which serious misconduct precipitated a discharge.” Evidence, he said, “will be carefully weighed against the severity of the misconduct.”
“This is not a Get Out of Jail Free card,” Berger said.
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