Frustrated by Pentagon efforts, Connecticut groups that work with veterans have informed some 1,500 veterans that they can apply for upgrades of “bad paper” military discharge statuses if they have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Although tens of thousands of veterans nationwide are eligible to apply for PTSD-related upgrades, just 1,180 have done so, according to figures provided by the Pentagon to the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic.
In 2014, then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued a policy to make it easier for veterans with PTSD to upgrade their discharge statuses and become eligible for veterans’ benefits.
“Most people don’t know about it,” said Olivia Horton, a Yale law student, working on the project to contact Connecticut veterans by mail.
She said frustration with the Pentagon’s public outreach “was the impetus” to contact veterans directly.
Since a letter went out last Wednesday, Connecticut veterans have already been seeking information about the application process from Vet Centers in the state, the nonprofit Connecticut Veterans Legal Center and the New Haven Legal Assistance website, ctlawhelp.org, Horton said.
The state Department of Veterans Affairs sent the letter and located veterans with “bad paper” discharges by using discharge documents it has and data from the State Department of Motor Vehicles to find those still living in the state, Horton said.
“Bad paper” discharges are dishonorable and other than honorable discharges and can prevent veterans from receiving federal benefits, such as health care, disability payments, and education and housing assistance.
Vietnam Veterans of America and its state council and the Yale law clinic also worked on the letter which includes information about PTSD symptoms and advice on obtaining PTSD evaluations and applying for discharge upgrades.
Vietnam War veterans with less than honorable discharges have complained that they were discharged because of conduct related to their PTSD, but didn’t know they had that condition until years later. As a result, they have been denied veterans’ benefits. PTSD was not identified as a medical condition until 1980, five years after the war ended.
The Yale Law School clinic helped Connecticut Vietnam veteran Conley Monk get his military discharge upgraded so he could receive benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Before Hagel’s 2014 directive, PTSD was not considered by military boards when reviewing a veteran’s discharge status, according to the letter sent to state veterans. The letter states that a PTSD diagnosis “greatly increases the odds” that a veteran will receive an upgrade.
However, it remains an uphill fight. In the first three quarters of this year, most of the PTSD-related application decisions were denials, according to Pentagon national figures provided to Yale this year under a court agreement. Of 979 veterans who applied for such upgrades through September 30, a total of 246 were approved and 733 were denied.
Horton said she doesn’t know of other states that have contacted veterans directly about the policy.
“Our outreach is really limited. Hopefully, other states will be able to do a similar project,” she said.
“It is frustrating that we can’t just notify everyone nationwide,” Norton said, adding that she believes that the Pentagon could do that.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, (D-CT), has been critical of the Pentagon’s outreach efforts about the policy. Blumenthal, in a press release about the program, said, “far too few veterans have benefited to date, largely because they are unaware of the change or do not know how to seek reconsideration.”
He said the Department of Defense (DOD) should inform veterans “proactively and comprehensively.”
Last year, a DOD spokesman said efforts have been “extensive,” including press releases, news briefing announcements, outreach to homeless veterans, department website updates, and contact with veterans’ groups and bar associations.
Horton expressed hope that lawyers in Connecticut will volunteer to help veterans understand and undertake the application process.