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DoD willing to reconsider discharges of Vietnam vets with PTSD

Sep. 3, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
U.S. soldiers carry a wounded comrade through a swampy area during action in Vietnam in 1969. The Defense Department has agreed to reconsider the bad-paper discharges for thousands of Vietnam-era veterans who may have suffered from combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder but were kicked out of the military in the era before that became a diagnosable condition. (National Archives / AFP)
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The Defense Department has agreed to reconsider the bad-paper discharges for thousands of Vietnam-era veterans who may have suffered from combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder but were kicked out of the military in the era before that became a diagnosable condition.

In a new rule announced Wednesday, the Pentagon said veterans from the Vietnam era and other past wars with other-than-honorable discharges will be given “liberal consideration” if they seek to correct their military records and provide some evidence of a PTSD diagnosis that existed at the time of their service.

Upgraded discharges could result in the restoration of some benefits, such as disability pay, separation pay or GI Bill benefits from the Veterans Affairs Department, which are typically denied to vets who receive other-than-honorable discharges. Health care in the VA system is typically provided to veterans regardless of their discharge.

In today’s military, PTSD is considered a mitigating factor for misconduct and behavioral problems. The military services are required to grant a medical evaluation to any service member who claims PTSD before finalizing a bad discharge.

The Pentagon’s new rule comes in response to a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of several veterans in March that claimed the Defense Department was wrongfully denying discharge upgrade applications from veterans with claims and evidence of PTSD. The new policy was applauded by the Yale Law School Veterans’ Legal Service Clinic, which is spearheading the federal lawsuit.

“DoD appears to be taking a significant step to correcting a longstanding injustice,” said Jennifer McTiernan, a student intern involved with the lawsuit.

However, she said, it’s too early to tell how the new rule will be implemented and the lawsuit is likely to continue.

For years, the military services have rejected PTSD claims from Vietnam-era vets with what McTiernan called “Catch-22-like denials” that say changes cannot be granted without a diagnosis of PTSD from the 1970s — even though PTSD did not become officially recognized by the medical profession until 1980.

And for many veterans, fixing their official discharge document, known as a DD 214, is about more than VA benefits.

“Having an other-than-honorable discharge is a stigma. When someone has a DD 214 with an other-than-honorable discharge on it, it leads employers to possibly not hire them, it leads to discriminatory treatment in other aspects of their lives, it negatively affects their life prospects,” McTiernan said.

“These are veterans who honorably served their country and have a psychological wound of war and they should be recognized for having served honorably, not stigmatized and discriminated against,” she said.

The Sept. 3 memo was signed by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a former Army sergeant who earned two Purple Hearts for combat injuries he suffered in Vietnam. Hagel, a longtime veterans’ advocate and former top official at VA, played a key role in finalizing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

The lawsuit estimates that a quarter-million Vietnam-era veterans were separated with other-than-honorable discharges and up to 80,000 of them may have suffered from PTSD. The Pentagon’s new rule will apply to all veterans with discharges prior to the formal recognition of PTSD in 1980. The vast majority of those are likely to come from the Vietnam era.

The Pentagon is also ordering the four military services to mount a “public messaging campaign” this year and next year targeting veterans who may be affected by this policy change.

The new guidance is focused on veterans with low-level misconduct that may have resulted in administrative discharge. It is unlikely to affect veterans who were court-martialed for serious misconduct and kicked out with a bad-conduct discharge or dishonorable discharge.

One defense official familiar with the policy change said the aim is to strike a balance between addressing concerns from veterans who suffered from a legitimate psychiatric disorder without eroding the respect derived from honorable service and the millions of veterans who earned it.

“This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” the defense official said.

In effect, a veteran seeking a revised discharge will have to prove three elements: that he or she suffered from PTSD at the time of service, that the cause was related to military service and that the symptoms were a factor in the misconduct underlying the other-than-honorable discharge.

The memo is directed toward the Army’s and Air Force’s Boards for Correction of Military Records and the Board for Correction of Naval Records, which handles requests from sailors and Marines.

The memo says: “Liberal consideration will be given in cases where civilian providers confer diagnoses of PTSD or PTSD-related conditions” and there is further evidence that the disorder existed at the time of service.

“Liberal consideration” will be granted in cases where any document — military or otherwise — can substantiate the existence of one or more symptoms of what is now known as PTSD.

However, in cases involving “serious misconduct,” the boards will “exercise caution” and carefully consider the likely causal relationship of symptoms to misconduct, the memo says.

Scrutinizing records that are now more than 40 years old will be a challenge, especially since some of them were destroyed in a massive 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis.

The last time the Pentagon issued forcewide guidance for service-level records corrections boards was in the wake of the 2011 repeal of the “don’t ask don’t tell” law. That guidance allowed former service members to seek changes to their military records if their separation was related to the military’s 17-year ban on gays serving openly in uniform.

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