Very few veterans take advantage of a Pentagon policy designed to make it easier for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to upgrade their discharge status and become eligible to apply for veterans’ benefits, according to a Yale Law Clinic report.
At a news conference Monday, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., veterans, and Yale law students, blamed the Department of Defense for not adequately publicizing the policy to veterans with less than honorable discharges. Since new guidelines were announced last year, just 201 of tens of thousands of eligible veterans applied for a PTSD-related service upgrade, according to the report. Blumenthal called the statistic “a staggering, outrageous fact.”
“Veterans on the streets of New Haven or Connecticut or the rest of the country have no idea about this,” Blumenthal said. “It takes a vigorous and rigorous effort, which the DOD committed to and they have failed,” he added.
Sundiata Sidibe, a student in the law school’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic, called the number of applicants “miniscule.” In previous years, an average of 39 veterans applied annually for status upgrades in connection with PTSD, the report states.
Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had asked the Pentagon to give the committee a progress report by August 2015 on its efforts to inform veterans about the policy. A report was never submitted, he said.
A Defense Department spokesman said the agency has made “extensive efforts” to inform veterans in a variety of ways including press releases, announcements at news briefings, direct outreach to homeless veterans via the Department of Veterans Affairs, updates on the department website, and contact with veterans’ organizations and bar associations.
“There’s a lot of unfinished business here,” said Garry Monk, a founder of the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress.
Blumenthal said that former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel gave a “firm commitment” that applicants with PTSD who sought service discharge upgrades “would be reviewed with liberal consideration. That means nothing if there are no applications.”
Since September 2014, when Hagel announced the new policy, the Army granted 12 times more requests for discharge upgrades than it had in the previous two decades, according to the Yale report. The Army processed 164 status upgrade applications based on PTSD claims and approved 74 of them, the report states.
The Air Force and the Navy, which handles Marines applications, didn’t provide their numbers in violation of a Federal court order in a Freedom of Information lawsuit brought by the Yale clinic on behalf of veterans’ groups.
Vietnam veterans, particularly, have complained about receiving less than honorable discharges for behaviors they later identified as being caused by PTSD. It was recognized as a medical condition in 1980, five years after the end of the Vietnam War.
The Army denied 54 applications based on a lack of a credible PTSD diagnosis, a situation Blumenthal called “a classic Catch-22.” He said since many of these veterans aren’t eligible for medical benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, they may not be able to afford to get the required medical examination and diagnosis.
The report recommends that the service branches’ review boards, which handle the applications, refer veterans without a formal PTSD diagnosis for medical evaluation so that those without access to health care can apply. “These veterans face a major barrier to upgrading their discharges and receiving the benefits required for employment, education, housing and health care,” the report states.
At 67 percent, Vietnam veterans comprised most of the PTSD-related upgrade applications to the Army and 57 percent of those were approved, the report found. This compared to 45 percent approval for other veterans. Some 23 percent of applications from veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were approved.
The report differed with the Army’s findings that soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan would have been diagnosed by the military if they had PTSD. “This reasoning is potentially problematic as the full extent of PTSD’s effects on behavior has only recently become better understood, delayed-onset PTSD may not manifest during service, and while improved, the Army’s procedures for identifying soldiers with PTSD remain imperfect,” it concludes.
The report also called for mental health professionals to serve on the application review boards to help assess veterans’ claims of PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and other service-related mental health conditions. “Without significant reform within these boards, veterans with TBIs and psychological disorders will be unsuccessful in acquiring discharge upgrades and the attending benefits they deserve,” the report said.