Thousands of veterans denied access to care following discharge

Thousands of veterans, including former frontline combat soldiers and those suffering from mental health problems, are being denied medical treatment and other services because they received less than honorable discharges, a new report released Wednesday reveals.

Veterans who served from 2001 were nearly twice as likely as those who served during Vietnam to be barred from benefits, and four times as likely as men and women who served during World War 11, according to the report by the San Francisco-based Swords to Plowshares support and advocacy organization.

The report compared data compiled over 70 years by the Departments of Defense and Veterans’ Affairs.

Lawmakers are being urged to support a recently filed bill that would make it easier for veterans to appeal their less-than-honorable discharges, so-called “bad paper.”

There are five discharge designations: honorable, general, other-than-honorable, bad conduct and dishonorable. Those discharged under the first two categories receive most services veterans are entitled to, without question.

But some 125,000 veterans were discharged either as other-than-honorable, for bad conduct or as dishonorable, since the outbreak of the war in Afghanistan nearly 15 years ago. Those who get bad conduct or dishonorable discharges are thrown out following a court martial.

Some 6.5 percent of veterans who served since 2001 received “bad paper” on discharge. This rises to one in 10 who served in the Marine Corps. 

Most of the veterans in this group leave the armed services under other-than-honorable circumstances, according to Brad Adams, manager of direct legal services with Swords to Plowshares.

An estimated 30,000 of the 125,000 veterans with "bad paper" were deployed overseas, many attached to the Marines. Some suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or other mental health issues, Adams said.

An honorable discharge is an administrative one, decided by a single commander, with no checks, and can happen very easily, for example as a result a single failed drug test, Adams, an attorney, told AMI Newswire. 


“A lot of my clients who received less-than-honorable discharges are turned away from different services that they deserve,” he said. “Their treatment is shameful. They enlisted, they served but are told 'you are non-veteran' and they send you away. I have been with someone when he was told that. It’s extremely hurtful.”

The VA has the authority to decide a veteran with "bad paper" can receive treatment but it is “very reluctant to do so,” Adams said.

The Department of Defense can also change a designation, but the process for doing so is difficult, and the applicant has to prove the misconduct was directly linked to trauma caused by their service.

A new House bill would specify that when veterans can prove they suffer PTSD or other mental health issues, the government would presume that these are linked to the offense.

On introducing bill HR 4683, the Fairness for Veterans Act, earlier this month, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) said a less-than-honorable discharge is often issued to service members for minor misconduct, including being late to formation and being absent without leave.

“Increasing access to mental healthcare is a critical step to combating post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Coffman, a Marine Corps combat veteran. "In the case of veterans with severe mental health problems, access to these services may be life-saving.

Twenty-two veterans commit suicide each day, Coffman pointed out.

"This number is far too high," he said, "and it is my hope that veterans with questionable, less-than-honorable discharges receive quick access to the mental healthcare they earned and deserve.”