Updated: Jan 12, 2021
When it comes to life after service for military veterans, civilians likely do not consider – much less realize – how discharge status can impact a veteran’s life. Many Americans believe that if you wore the United States military uniform, you are automatically eligible for the care and benefits promised to you when you volunteered.
But the half-a-million veterans with an Other-than-Honorable (OTH) discharge (and many more with general discharges) are barred from healthcare and economic assistance from the U.S. government. The repercussions of an unfavorable discharge status (AKA “bad papers”), can last a lifetime and have an incredibly negative impact on a veteran’s health and wellbeing.
The fallout of ‘bad papers’ “The implication of having bad paper is severe. The fallout of not having access to VA care is denial of medical care, treatment, whether it be service-connected or related to any number of conditions. It can deny counseling and, of course, housing... And of course, there’s no educational assistance,” said Michael Blecker, executive director of Swords to Plowshares. “Veterans who have bad paper are over-represented with issues around incarceration and suicidal ideation – all those things that make adjustment [to life after military service] so difficult.”
Kristofer Goldsmith, the founder of High Ground Veterans Advocacy, described how life changed after a suicide attempt while in the U.S. Army.
“...that was, frankly, more frightening than my period in Iraq.” — Kristofer Goldsmith
“I had served in the army for about three-and-a-half years, was promoted to a sergeant...At the age of 19-years-old, my job was to photograph bodies and mass graves... Along with the daily stress... the daily deployment stressors, being up close and personal with death... left a tremendous impact on me,” he said.
“Now I went from kind of being like, somewhat placed on a pedestal, in terms of performing very well, promoted ahead of my peers, to being treated like a criminal,” Goldsmith said. “From the moment I woke up handcuffed to a gurney, my entire experience in the military turned into something that was, frankly, more frightening than my period in Iraq.” “It took a lot of work and I had about five years that were a very dark period of my life, but with persistent effort, and with some really outstanding medical providers at the VA, I went from being unemployed experiencing things like homelessness to having just graduated from Columbia University,” he said. “None of that would have been possible without the VA.”
Unfortunately, because he had a bad paper, Goldsmith found himself without the financial assistance typically available to veterans with fully honorable discharges under the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. Despite his recovery, Goldsmith found himself taking on massive debt to get an education that would help him in post-service life.
Who makes the rules? Maureen “Mo” Siedor, Swords to Plowshares’ Director of Legal Services, explained how Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs determine which veterans are eligible for care and benefits.
“Whenever a veteran with an Other Than Honorable, Bad Conduct, or Dishonorable discharge, tries to get any benefits from the VA..the first step in that process is the character of discharge determination,” said Siedor. “Essentially what that is, is the VA’s assessment of whether or not to let that veteran in the door and grant them eligibility for services.”
“There’s sort of two sources of law here that dictate this character of discharge process. One is from Congress, the statutory bars, there’s six of them. They’re very straightforward,” Siedor said. “And then what the VA does as an executive branch agency, is they get to write their own rules. Basically interpreting what Congress has authorized them to do and give guidance to their VA employees about what this all means.”
“Those [rules] are very vague,” said Siedor. “They’re very overbroad. The vast majority of veterans who are denied eligibility are denied on those regulatory grounds.” Several organizations, including Swords to Plowshares, are appealing to the Department of Veterans Affairs to reexamine their rules. The public comment period is open until September 8, 2020.
“What we’ve asked for… is that the VA review and revisit their regulatory bars and change them so they comport with congressional intent... and we’ve asked them to clarify the language in the regulatory bars so that those VA decisionmakers know exactly who should be let in the door and who shouldn’t be,” said Siedor.
Because of the vague nature and inconsistent interpretation of the existing rules, The Department of Veterans Affairs has unfairly denied care and benefits to thousands of veterans. The denial statistics are staggering, as documented in the report Turned Away: How VA Unlawfully Denies Healthcare to Veterans with Bad Paper Discharges.
For instance, more than 100,000 veterans have been discharged with bad papers because of their LGBTQ status. The number of bad paper discharges has also grown tremendously over time. Since 1980, an estimated 575,000 veterans have received an OTH or punitive discharge. Post-9/11 veterans received nearly five times the number of bad paper discharges than World War II veterans.
West Point graduate and U.S. Army Major Danny Sjursen (Ret.) explained the culture around bad paper discharges:
“What we had was a frazzled and overwrought system of command taxed by this endless war and deployment cycle and what it did… it incentivized an empathy-absent urgency to accelerate discharges for what we called ‘our problem children.’ What really drove it was statistics... so we had to report, as company commanders, deployability percentage status reports...”
“If a soldier had a significant medical issue, had a pending disciplinary infraction, even if he had bad teeth and hadn’t gone to see the dentist, for any number of reasons a soldier could be non-deployable.”
“In other words, why do you have so many non-deployable soldiers? Get them off your books, get them off your roster. Instead of treating individual cases - human beings - with the requisite care and effort... that didn’t pay, especially when you’re busy and you’re struggling to prioritize training things for combat – your ‘real’ job. In my experience we ended up destroying lives, or affecting lives, for petty crimes, really.”
Sjursen said that many of the behavioral issues also stemmed from trauma due to repeat deployments. He said discharges have found to be used punitively against individuals who reported military sexual trauma.
“We as a society have an enormous amount to lose and almost nothing to gain from these mass disciplinary discharges,” said Sjursen.
What’s the fix? It is apparent that The Department of Veterans Affairs must correct how it interprets the rules around discharges so veterans can finally get the care and benefits they need to be successful after service. However, policymakers may be looking at the wrong problem and providing the incorrect fix.
“...we have the cyclical situation we live in now of broken vets in a society that responds with, mostly, crocodile tears.” — Danny Sjursen
“Congress has never funded the VA to treat all veterans, and so there is this ongoing game of chicken between Congress and the VA about how the VA is going to use the allocation it has,” said Harold Kudler, M.D., Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University and former national Mental Health policy lead in the Department of Veterans Affairs’ central office. “The cost of war and trying to fix people after they’ve been there is so immense, that the nation has really never come to grips with it.” “I feel like there are members of Congress who are just obsessed with suicide prevention,” said Goldsmith. “But the truth is that if you’re not addressing bad paper discharges – veterans with bad paper are more likely to die by suicide then any cohort of their peers – then you’re not really doing anything about the suicide crisis.”
“The VA is easy to blame..if you want to find a bureaucratic entity to prove the government doesn’t work, then look downstream at VA issues – but don’t you dare look at production company which is the Department of Defense thru our civilian leaders’ policies and the production company through the pervasive, punitive culture in the military…” said Sjursen. “While we adore, adulate, and maybe even fetishize our veterans, we only do so...until they come home with the wrong bad paper discharges at which point we deny them medical care, employment, and educational opportunities,” Sjursen said. “And, we have the cyclical situation we live now in of broken vets in a society that responds with, mostly, crocodile tears.”
MICHAEL BLECKER & MO SIEDOR Michael Blecker and Mo Siedor work at Swords for Plowshares, a San Francisco-based non-profit that supports nearly 3,000 homeless, low-income, and at-risk veterans through employment and job training, supportive housing programs, permanent housing placement, counseling and case management, and legal services. Follow Swords to Plowshares on Twitter.
KRISTOFER GOLDSMITH Kristofer Goldsmith is a U.S. Army veteran and founder, president, and chairman of High Ground Veterans Advocacy. While at the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), he investigated and wrote a ground-breaking report on how foreign entities were targeting troops and veterans online. Follow Goldsmith on Twitter.
DANNY SJURSEN Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army veteran and author of two books Ghost Riders of Baghdad and the forthcoming Patriotic Dissent. He has written extensively about his experiences and provided commentary as the contributing editor at AntiWar.com and for numerous other publications and podcasts. In 2019, he was selected as the 2019 Lannan Foundation cultural freedom fellow. Follow Sjursen on Twitter.