TODAY, we honor the nation’s 22 million veterans, including more than 2.5 million who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and other fronts in the war against Al Qaeda. But we are turning our backs on hundreds of thousands of veterans who were discharged “under conditions other than honorable” and so do not qualify as veterans under federal law.
Their discharges, which include overly broad categories encompassing everything from administrative discharges for minor misconduct to dishonorable discharges following a court-martial, nevertheless make them ineligible for the health care, employment, housing and education benefits offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Because of the “bad paper” they carry in the form of their discharge certificates, many of these veterans struggle upon leaving the military. And when they falter, the burden for supporting them falls heavily on their local communities because federal agencies cannot, by law, help them.
No federal agency publishes the numbers of bad paper discharges. But historical studies suggest that at least several hundred thousand veterans fall into this category. Approximately 260,000 of the 8.7 million Vietnam-era veterans were pushed out of the service with bad paper. More recently, according to documents separately obtained by theColorado Springs Gazette, the Army discharged 76,165 soldiers between 2006 and 2012 with bad paper. Of these recent Army discharges, only one in seven were kicked out following a criminal conviction for a serious offense. The rest were discharged for smaller breaches of military discipline like missing duty or abusing alcohol or drugs. For many of them, their misconduct was likely related to the stresses of war.
Instead of showing compassion for these troops who were carrying the invisible wounds of war, their commanders kicked them out. These troops’ getting pushed out under such circumstances would be enough of a blow, but these commanders compounded the injury by giving them bad paper, instead of merely administratively separating them from the service.
While assessing the needs of veterans in the Western United States, my research team met with community leaders and nonprofit agency staff members in seven cities with the largest populations of veterans, and interviewed others in outlying cities and rural areas as well. Across these communities, veterans with bad paper were believed to be significantly overrepresented in the at-risk veterans populations. All too frequently these veterans become part of the nation’s chronically homeless or incarcerated populations.
When they end up in distress or on the streets, their communities must bear this burden alone.
We have a moral obligation to those who serve, especially those who serve us in combat. At times, the military must discharge those who can’t perform or conform. However, commanders should exercise far greater discretion and compassion in trimming the ranks. Bad discharges indelibly mark veterans as damaged goods and cost society a great deal too.
Congress should also allow the V.A. to more broadly provide mental health care, homelessness support and other forms of crisis intervention to veterans with bad paper. The V.A. has case-by-case authority to do so now, but that does not help veterans with bad paper who have acute needs. A more compassionate policy would not diminish the military’s ability to maintain discipline, nor would it cheapen the valor of those who have served honorably.
The military has a process to fix bad paper, but that process takes too much time, and veterans often need legal help to prevail in an incredibly bureaucratic and difficult process.
The story of John Shepherd Jr., who earned a Bronze Star for valor in Vietnam but was kicked out after disobeying an order to return to combat after developing severe post-traumatic stress disorder, shows how difficult these cases can be. Mr. Shepherd went without V.A. support for 40 years until a team of students and lawyers at Yale Law School helped him correct his record this month.
Excellent programs exist to help veterans in such cases, but they deserve more resources. Small investments in pro bono legal services can help unlock a lifetime of access to the V.A. and help the neediest veterans with bad paper move on with their lives.
Finally, the veterans community should do more to lift up those veterans who have been discharged with bad paper, particularly in those cases where combat experience lies at the heart of the bad discharge. The American military ethos calls on all of us to leave no fallen comrade behind. That applies at home, too, and to all veterans, regardless of whether they carry bad paper.