Thousands of Army veterans with mental illnesses will get a second chance for a higher discharge status and veterans’ benefits because of a settlement in a class action suit brought by two Connecticut veterans.
The settlement requires the U.S. Army to “automatically reconsider” every rejected application for discharge upgrades connected with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or related mental health conditions that it rejected over nine years from April 17, 2011 through November 17, 2020. So far, the Army has identified about 3,500 affected veterans of the Army, Army Reserve or Army National Guard.
The lawsuit represented veterans who were given less than honorable discharges for behaviors they contend were triggered by PTSD, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma or related issues. The suit contended that the Army failed to follow its own rules that require consideration of mental health in discharge upgrade applications.
The Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic, which represented the plaintiffs, estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 Army veterans have such discharges, but most haven’t applied for upgrades. “Bad paper” discharges usually make veterans ineligible for many federal and state veterans’ benefits, which could provide help for their conditions and potentially avoid suicide and other devastating effects.
Yale and co-counsel, Jenner & Block in New York, have a similar suit against the US Navy.
But U. S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, (D-CT), said he will propose legislation to put the regulations into law so that veterans won’t have to sue for recognition of mental health conditions when they apply for discharge status upgrades. He called the settlement “a truly historic step forward” by providing “fairness and justice for veterans who were given less than honorable discharges through no fault of their own.”
Stephen M. Kennedy, of Fairfield, a lead plaintiff in the case, was highly decorated and quickly promoted in the Army, but was given a general under honorable discharge after leaving his base without permission to go to his wedding and honeymoon. Kennedy, who served in Iraq, attributed his uncharacteristic behavior to PTSD. His discharge status was upgraded to honorable in 2018, but he continued the class action lawsuit. The second lead plaintiff, Alicia J. Carson, who now lives in Alaska, also received a discharge upgrade in 2018.
“When we started this, I was not sure I could get upgraded myself, let alone get this opportunity for thousands of other veterans,” said Kennedy, Connecticut team leader of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and a student at the University of Connecticut School of Law.
He said veterans nationwide have been “discharged for symptoms of mental health conditions and then stripped of the benefits that may have helped them heal.”
They were “kicked out for suicide attempts, or for self-medicating to deal with combat stress, or for going AWOL because they couldn’t deal with it anymore,” he said.
Kennedy expressed regret about those for whom the settlement is too late because they died by suicide. He said “the loss of proper acknowledgment of service, VA services, and other benefits lead veterans with bad paper to have double the suicide risk of their fellow vets.”
“When service members are branded as less than honorable for behavior stemming from PTSD, it’s a national disgrace,” said Margaret Kuzma, director of discharge upgrade practice for Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. She called the settlement pivotal “in recognizing and remedying that injustice.”
The settlement also requires the Army to: invite veterans whose applications were rejected from October, 2001 through April, 2011 to apply again, permit telephonic appearances at upgrade hearings, and make veterans aware of their rights to seek legal and medical services. The Army denied all allegations of wrongdoing made in the lawsuit.