By Bruce Carruthers
A recent article in The New York Times provides a poignant example of the problems faced by veterans with Other than Honorable (OTH) discharges. Hundreds of thousands of service members who have mental or physical problems acquired or exacerbated by military service are given such discharges as punishment. Veterans who receive a bad paper discharge are not only denied access to VA healthcare, but are also ineligible for any other benefits, including veteran preference when applying for a job.
The Times focuses on a particularly egregious practice. It dates back to 2016 and the fight against ISIS, the Department of Defense (DoD) organized artillery units, rather than deploying heavy infantry, to reduce casualties. The personnel in these units fired high numbers of powerful rounds for extended periods. “The cannon blasts,” the paper explains, “were strong enough to hurl a 100-pound round 15 miles, and each unleashed a shock wave that shot through the crew members’ bodies, vibrating bone, punching lungs and hearts, and whipping at cruise-missile speeds through the most delicate organ of all, the brain.”
Early research on the use of these weapons suggests that they can lead to traumatic brain injuries and other problems. It is not surprising that those who served in these units have often experienced severe mental and physical problems. Some have committed suicide. Others self-medicate with drugs or alcohol.
Rather than providing these service members with a medical discharge and treating their wounds, the military has given many bad paper discharges. (It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to receive a discharge upgrade from the military once a service member becomes a civilian.)
Bad paper discharges adversely affect hundreds of thousands of American veterans. Two reports explain that the use of these discharges has increased dramatically since World War Two. In that conflict, 1.9 percent of enlisted personnel were issued OTH discharges. This increased to 3 percent during the Korean War, then to 3.9 percent during Vietnam, and now 8.4 percent for Post-9/11 veterans. Since 1980, 575,000 veterans have received OTH Discharges. More than 100,000 military personnel have been issued over the last two decades.
Many are the result of minor breaches in conduct – coming to formation late, getting into fights on the weekend, cussing out a superior — that often result from things like PTSD, Military Sexual Trauma, or a traumatic brain injury. The use of these discharges also depends on the branch of service, the philosophy of the command, the unit’s needs, the period in which the veteran served, as well as race, ethnicity, and gender (Many brave women who have reported a rape or sexual harassment have been rewarded with an OTH discharge).
In their book “Our Veterans”, VHPI’s Suzanne Gordon and Jasper Craven interviewed Daniel Sjursen, who commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. He explained that the military also uses the OTH discharge to get rid of what it considers to be “problem children.” Using this discharge, Sjursen explained, “a junior officer responsible for a unit with a low readiness rate or too many disciplinary problems,” can avoid damaging “their own career advancement.”
The use of OTH discharges is a determination too often made without any consistent application of standards across military branches or even individual commanders within the same branch. For example, while the Marine Corps is by far the smallest service branch, it accounted for at least 40 percent of the military’s OTH discharges issued each fiscal year from 2010 to 2015. The Air Force, on the other hand, has generally accounted for well under five percent.
Compounding these problems is the fact that the VHA could treat these veterans, but too often chooses not to. The law governing eligibility for treatment from the VHA disqualifies only veterans with a Dishonorable Discharge. In this vacuum, the VA has constructed a complex and arbitrary set of regulations to adjudicate whether or not an OTH veterans can gain access.
One of these “standards” is “moral turpitude.” This is an incredibly broad definition that places turpitude in the eye of the beholder, or the adjudicator, in this case. What constitutes character or conduct within the realm of acceptability to one person is a moral outrage to another. In our diverse and rapidly changing society, moral turpitude is impossible to clearly define. It is a constantly moving target.
In 2015, the San Francisco-based Swords to Plowshares and the National Veterans Legal Services Program petitioned the VA to make regulatory changes to help veterans with OTH discharges get access to care and other benefits. Eight years and three administrations later no action has been taken. In October, the two groups filed a lawsuit against the VA to “compel the VA to finally promulgate long overdue amendments to the VA’s rules that would make it easier for these veterans to obtain basic VA benefits like health care, disability compensation, and pension.”
It is unacceptable that veterans are denied the care they earned. Difficulties experienced by veterans at the end of their service must not exclude them from access to VA care and other benefits.
The simplest short-term solution to this problem is for Congress to pass legislation that requires VA to follow the letter of the law and make all veterans with OTH Discharges – past, current, and future – eligible for care and benefits. Over the longer term, Congress should require the DoD to stop using OTH discharges as a convenient way to get rid of – and punish – service members who have suffered from the toxic impacts of military service.