Lawmakers urge defense bill to help less-than-honorable discharges

A bipartisan group of nine lawmakers joined with leading veterans groups Tuesday to call for the final version of a defense policy bill to include language aimed at making it easier for veterans who were discharged for behavior related to mental health issues to upgrade their discharges.

“We are very close to making sure that these service men and women get the help that they need, and we’re going to make it a reality in the next weeks,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), whose Fairness for Veterans Act was included in the Senate-passed version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

{mosads}The provision in the Senate version would require discharge review boards to provide “liberal consideration” to the diagnosis of a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) or military sexual assault when considering whether to upgrade a less-than-honorable discharge.

The House-passed version does not include that provision. Conferees are in the process of reconciling the two versions of the bill.

Advocates say thousands of veterans have received “bad discharge papers” as a result of behavior associated with PTSD, TBI or sexual trauma. Such discharges haunt veterans for the rest of their lives, advocates say, denying them veterans benefits and casting a stigma that can affect aspects of civilian life, such as finding employment.

“Why are our veterans, who have done so much for our country, being denied these vital services simply because they had to endure a psychological trauma?” asked Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“We have to ensure that this provision is included in the final version of the defense authorization so they can get access to the care that they need.”

At Tuesday’s press conference, a handful of veterans shared their experiences being discharged after PTSD-related behavior. Tyson Manker, a Marine veteran who served in Iraq, said he was discharged after smoking marijuana once to treat his PTSD symptoms. Kristofer Goldsmith, an Army veteran who served in Iraq, said he was discharged after attempting suicide by overdosing on Percocet and vodka.

“Thankfully, I didn’t die that night, but when I woke up the next morning, I was treated like a criminal,” said Goldsmith, now ‎assistant director for policy and government relations at Vietnam Veterans of America. “Just a few weeks later, I was expeditiously administratively discharged from the Army, and I was stripped of my GI Bill.”

The press conference was organized by Vietnam Veterans for America and also attended by representatives from Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Swords to Plowshares, Student Veterans of America, Wounded Warrior Project, United Soldiers and Sailors of America, High Ground Veterans Advocacy, Military-Veterans Advocacy, VetsFirst, Association of the United States Navy, Fleet Reserve Association, and Military Order of the Purple Heart.

In addition to Peters and Gillibrand, seven House members spoke: Reps. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), Tim Walz (D-Minn.), Lee Zeldin (D-N.Y.), Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Walter Jones (R-S.C.), Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii). All aside from Zeldin are members of the House Armed Services Committee.

“We’re here today to say to those of you who got less than an honorable discharge, you will not be forgotten,” Jones said. “You have earned the right to have reconsideration.”

While the defense bill is pending, Walz said, President Obama can also act to help such veterans.

“I’m somewhat loath of executive orders, but I would encourage President Obama to make the move on this while we codify this into law,” he said.

“The president can fix this now, can move something forward now to help folks. We can get it done, get it in the NDAA, make sure this can’t be reversed.”

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