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Filling The Gaps For Veterans With Bad Discharges


All this week on MORNING EDITION we've been hearing about veterans we don't usually discuss, people who served in the military and then left with a less than honorable discharge. Even if they saw combat, veterans with bad paper, as it's called, do not get the healthcare or benefits accorded to most vets.

Now, you can say that it's their fault, except that in many cases the misconduct seems to be a product of the trauma of their service. Many veterans suffer from PTSD or drug and alcohol abuse, or they find themselves homeless. The system for veterans is complicated. It's confusing even for those in it, and so we're going to sort through some of the realities for veterans with bad paper with NPR's Quil Lawrence who's been reporting this series. Hi, Quil.


INSKEEP: Okay. So we're talking about 100,000 vets at this point. Is it true they really do not get any care because of their discharge?

LAWRENCE: Their left out of, they're excluded from pretty much every veterans organization you've ever heard of. But the big one, the one that counts, is the VA. And this week, we talked to, among others, Reed Holway, an Iraq vet up in New Hampshire. He and his wife Kelly are really struggling to make ends meet. He's got PTSD. He says that's what caused him to get kicked out of the Army, and they know perfectly well all of the benefits that they would be getting otherwise.

KELLY HOLWAY: There's BAH that would pay for our rent while I'm in school. There's the GI Bill. There's disability benefits. There's medical, which is huge.

REED HOLWAY: I don't like looking at the list of them 'cause it kind of depresses me, but...

HOLWAY: Just the medical alone, to pay for Reed's medication each month because he can't function without it, it would make a huge difference.

LAWRENCE: So he ends up turning to community groups around him in New Hampshire to deal with his PTSD.

INSKEEP: Okay. So he's got a less than honorable discharge. He did something wrong. But he's got PTSD, which is something that you get from combat and he's got to go outside the VA system to get help for that?

LAWRENCE: This is law for almost all of the discharges below honorable. But sort of all around the law and the regulations are a lot of misconceptions. The most common myth that we ran into is that a discharge under other than honorable conditions will somehow automatically upgrade if you keep your nose clean.

We were talking with a lawyer named Carol Scott, who's been working on this issue since the '70s. This is what she said.

CAROL SCOTT: If a troop gets in trouble, they're offered an opportunity to go home, sign here, you can go home. The myth still exists that, well, it will be automatically upgraded in six months or you can get it upgraded easily. And that just simply is not and never has been the case.

LAWRENCE: But with all the vets we were talking to, some were getting benefits when legally it didn't look like they should have; others were getting turned away from the VA out of hand. So the practice of these rules also makes it even more confusing.

INSKEEP: Okay. So in some cases some people might actually get benefits that they wouldn't be entitled to, but you're saying that a lot of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, do not realize if they sign some paper, effectively plea-bargain when they get in trouble, they are maybe giving up treatment for life.

LAWRENCE: Yeah, it's a quick administrative discharge. It avoids a court-martial, and to a young man in trouble, it can seem like a great way to get out of trouble right now, but the consequences can be huge.

INSKEEP: Okay. So what does the VA say about all this?

LAWRENCE: They mostly said that bad discharges make up such a tiny percentage of the millions of vets they deal with that they don't have great numbers on how many they turn away, how many they upgrade. Brad Flohr, a senior advisor at the VA, busted another myth for us though. He says with bad paper the VA can't simply turn a veteran down out of hand.

They have to do an evaluation of the veteran's character of service.

BRAD FLORE: So we encourage veterans who have bad discharges to file a claim. We'll then review it and there's a possibility always that we will find in favor of them.

LAWRENCE: He said that there are no good figures on how often they do find in a vet's favor, so the starting point for most of these guys is that they're going to have trouble getting any benefits.

INSKEEP: Okay. So who is helping veterans fill in the gaps when they do go to the VA and are turned away?

LAWRENCE: They're mostly community organizations in towns and cities. They're small. They're somewhat overwhelmed. We talked to a woman who runs one in Hampton Rhodes, Virginia called Beacon Institute. Her name's Sharon Schlerf and she said they're seeing a lot of vets with bad paper.

SHARON SCHLERF: In military support organizations like mine, absolutely we see it coming and we see a huge deluge, an avalanche, anywhere from the incarceration to homelessness, all of the issues. If you don't capture them now, get them stabilized, then all we're doing is doubling those numbers. That's why it's so overwhelming to be able to provide these services.

INSKEEP: And I want to remind people of a number that you have given us here; 100,000 people with less than honorable discharges in the last decade alone. Can these private organizations handle so many people?

LAWRENCE: Well, they're saying they're going to try, and also that there's a big of history repeating itself here. These new organizations that pop up to help Afghanistan and Iraq vets, a whole bunch of them have told me that the first people who walk through their door and ask for help are Vietnam veterans who say they didn't have this decades ago when they came home from war and they still need the help.

And that touches on something else, which is this idea that there's a cost to giving bad paper, a cost to society, that having veterans around with untreated PTSD, it's a cost to the individual, but it also is a cost to our cities and towns and it gets more and more expensive the longer you let it run.

INSKEEP: Oh, because this could last for years or decades of someone's life, for many lives.

LAWRENCE: And keeping someone from being homeless, everyone told me, is much, much cheaper than taking care of them once they are homeless or have been homeless for years.

INSKEEP: Now, you did mention, Quil, that there is a process to try to get your status in some way improved. What is possible and what's being done about that?

LAWRENCE: Well, there's a very difficult road to getting your discharge upgraded or your record corrected with the Pentagon, and that's a long process. It's expensive. It takes years and it's very rarely successful. But there's this character of service evaluation by the VA. They can do their own evaluation and decide that for their purposes, your service was honorable and they can now take you in.

Now, I spoke with a therapist in Chicago for this story named Johanna Buwalda. She's with a group called The Soldiers Project and she is using this process, the VA's process of evaluating a veteran's service as sort of therapy.

JOHANNA BUWALDA: The problem is if you have no job, you have severe post traumatic stress, you don't trust anybody, and there's these piles of paperwork, your own story that you need to put together telling, you know, why you believe this discharge happened, which is re-traumatizing. You have to have a lot of resolve.

INSKEEP: It can be re-traumatizing, but she said it's part of the therapy, meaning what? That people are able to kind of grab a hold of their own situation and try to do something about it?

LAWRENCE: Well, she said that in this application they have to kind of tell the story again of everything that happened to them, and if they can manage to do this and if they can manage to get through the piles of red tape that you go through with any VA process, and if they can do that without rage or despair, she said maybe that's the stage where she can say this vet is on their way to recovery and maybe even on their way to getting some VA healthcare.

She painted a picture of these veterans as people who are incredibly isolated, and that was what I also heard from the dozens that I spoke with for this series. They're not in touch with their war buddies like most other veterans are. They seem just completely disowned by society, even though they spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan at war.

INSKEEP: Quil, thanks very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence covers veteran's issues. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Marisa Peñaloza is a senior producer on NPR's National Desk. Peñaloza's productions are among the signature pieces heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as weekend shows. Her work has covered a wide array of topics — from breaking news to feature stories, as well as investigative reports.
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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