Help Is Hard To Get For Veterans After A Bad Discharge

Dec 8, 2013
Originally published on December 16, 2013 8:21 am

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are often boxed into categories, stereotypes. Vets are wounded warriors - maybe they lost an arm or a leg, or suffer from PTSD. Vets are heroes - they risk their lives to serve. They are said to be the new greatest generation. Today, we'll begin a series about vets who don't fit the stereotypes. These vets committed crimes, or they breached military discipline. They got kicked out, and got other-than-honorable discharges. More than a hundred thousand troops left the service that way in the past 10 years, and the consequences can last a lifetime. A bad discharge disqualifies them from most veterans benefits and heath care, including treatment for PTSD.

NPR's Quil Lawrence, who covers veterans, will be reporting all week on veterans with other-than-honorable discharges. He joins us now from our studios in New York. Hi, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's start by explaining how these discharges work. What does it mean, other than honorable?

LAWRENCE: Basically, the vast majority of service members get out with an honorable discharge, but there are a lot of categories below that. There's a category of other than honorable, which is an administrative discharge. It covers everything from a pattern of misconduct, breaches of military order, to failing a drug test to drunk driving. And then there are discharges that come with a court martial - a bad conduct discharge or even a dishonorable discharge, for very serious crimes.

MARTIN: So how does that affect a veteran if he or she is discharged this way?

LAWRENCE: Bad paper means no GI Bill, no VA home loan. It can mean no VA at all. We spoke to dozens of veterans for this series; and I heard a recurring story, which is veterans with bad paper getting turned away from VA centers. Like Eric Highfill, an Iraq and Afghanistan vet - when he tried to go to a medical center in Michigan, he couldn't get past the front desk.

ERIC HIGHFILL: I had spoken with the receptionist, and I told her what was going on with me. She looked at my discharge and said, well, you have a bad discharge - other than honorable. And they said, we will not see you. Congress does not recognize you as a veteran.

LAWRENCE: The VA confirmed Highfill's visit. They claim they offered him information on how to appeal his status with the VA. The VA can do their own, independent evaluation of a veteran's character of service before making a decision to accept or reject a vet with bad paper. But veterans who we interviewed for this series, there's kind of a state of confusion with them. Several said they were turned away out of hand - like Eric Highfill, who had been diagnosed with PTSD and ended up with a drug problem. Others said that they were able to get benefits when the law says they shouldn't. These other-than-honorable vets are a tiny percentage of the millions of vets in the VA system. But there are more than 100,000 of them, by the most conservative numbers. And for some of them, it's worse than if they never served.

MARTIN: So someone who went to war, has PTSD, even a drug problem, could potentially end up worse off than someone who never even thought of serving in the first place?

LAWRENCE: Yeah, and especially if the offense that got them kicked out of the service, and it was related to trauma. Then they're stuck in this weird Catch-22, where they went to war, they got PTSD, it caused them to mess up and now, they can't get VA help for the PTSD that caused the problem to begin with. We interviewed Reed Holway; he's a young, Iraq war vet. He has PTSD. He got in trouble when he got posted back home, just months before he would have finished his enlistment. And now, he has that bad paper for good.

REED HOLWAY: I can't ever do anything with my life. I can never get a job with benefits because every time I go to get a job and they know that I have a bad-conduct discharge - you know, I can't get anything because the BCD. And I'm good at other things that I can never get a job doing because of my bad-conduct discharge, which sucks.

MARTIN: So is it a question of what we owe these veterans, essentially? It sounds as if these people committed offenses - some are serious crimes - but denying them a chance at a good job or health care benefits once they're out. I mean, does the country still owe these vets something for just having gone to war in the first place?

LAWRENCE: That's exactly the question. It comes down to two interpretations of what we owe them. Do you earn your veteran's health care by performing and earning and getting an honorable discharge, or is this some sort of a covenant, which from the minute you take an oath to go fight your country's wars, it's sealed? We spoke to Reed Holway, that veteran's father, and he's pretty angry with the Army.

BILL HOLWAY: I gave them a fine human being and they gave me back a damaged boy. No concern, not even good luck to you. I think that if you go over there and you put your life on the line and you're hurt, there ought to be a compensation for that.

LAWRENCE: At the same time, I've spoken to vets, who, with all the effort it takes to get care at the VA these days, they think it would be also unfair for a vet with awards for valor and an honorable discharge to be waiting in line behind someone who got kicked out for misconduct. But then the question becomes, you know, who takes care of these people if the VA doesn't? And that's, in fact, how we got onto this subject. NPR's senior producer Marisa Penaloza heard from a gathering of charities that serve veterans who can't get VA care. And they said they're bracing for a wave of veterans getting into trouble, having brushes with the law, and someone has to help the ones who have bad discharges.

MARTIN: NPR's Quil Lawrence. His series on vets with other-than-honorable discharges will air this week on MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Thanks so much, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.