A Connecticut veterans’ leader Monday filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of Army veterans nationwide who, like him, were given less than honorable discharges for behaviors later attributed to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Stephen Kennedy of Fairfield, a lead plaintiff, is a decorated Army veteran and a founder of the state chapter of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. In the suit, he claims the Army isn’t following a Pentagon policy to make it easier for veterans with PTSD to upgrade their discharge statuses. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport, is asking the court to order the Army to properly apply the policy. Issued by former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the policy directs military review boards to give “liberal consideration” to veterans whose service-connected PTSD is diagnosed after discharge. A second plaintiff, Alicia J. Carson, a former Connecticut resident who was in the Army and the National Guard and now lives in Alaska, is also named in the lawsuit.
The top diagnosis of women veterans treated in the VA Connecticut Healthcare System is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and it is usually accompanied by other mental health illnesses, according to VA officials. Most women veterans suffer from a mental illness, studies show, and the VA is taking steps to focus more on female-specific mental health care. A national study commissioned by the VA, Barriers to Care for Women Veterans, found that 52 percent of women veterans said they needed mental health care, but only 24 percent sought treatment. A survey by the nonprofit Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) showed that women veterans consider mental health to be their biggest challenge. At Connecticut VA facilities, 1,404 women had at least one mental health visit last year, representing 45 percent of women who use the VA.
Robert Hunter was raped in the Navy when he was 19, a memory he repressed for 32 years. When the memory returned, he drank heavily and endured mental health problems.
After receiving help from the VA Connecticut Healthcare System, he decided to build “something good from something horrible” and bring attention to men who are sexually assaulted in the military. The Connecticut veteran co-founded a national advocacy group called Men Recovering from Military Sexual Trauma (Mr. MST) because, he said, “male victims aren’t taken seriously.”
Hunter’s organization has spent the last three years raising awareness and lobbying for health care for military victims of sexual assault, meeting with top government decision makers, participating in White House policy discussions, speaking at events for military sexual assault victims and joining women survivors in advocating for removing the prosecution of military sexual assault from the chain of command. In the military, where men comprise 85 percent of the population, more men than women are sexually assaulted. The most recent Pentagon estimates show 10,600 men and 9,600 women were assaulted in 2014, representing 1 percent of active duty men and 4.9 percent of women.
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.
Bianca Cruz’s Navy career started with a job she loved on a ship in Japan, but after she was sexually assaulted by a sailor, her military life spiraled downward, ending with a “bad paper” discharge after serving 20 months. “If it weren’t for the sexual assault, I would still be in Japan,” said Cruz, 22, a Navy hospital corpsman, who returned home in November 2015. Cruz is among the thousands of sexual assault victims who have been pushed out of the military with a less than honorable discharge, according to a Human Rights Watch report released in May, Booted: Lack of Recourse for Wrongfully Discharged US Military Rape Survivors. The Navy diagnosed Cruz with a “personality disorder,” which the Rights Watch report said the military regularly uses to trigger quick dismissals of sexual assault victims.
Cruz is appealing to the Navy Discharge Review Board, requesting that her discharge status be upgraded from general (under honorable conditions) to honorable. Her current discharge status prevents her from receiving G.I. education benefits and re-enlisting in the military.
Nationally, at least one in five military veterans who experience trauma are at a heightened risk for depression, suicide or substance abuse but are often overlooked in clinical settings because they don’t fit the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a Yale University-led study. The research, published June 1 in the World Psychiatry journal, examined sub-threshold PTSD, which occurs when someone experiences trauma-related symptoms that aren’t severe or long-lasting enough to warrant a PTSD diagnosis. The study, which included 1,484 veterans nationwide, found 8 percent were diagnosed with PTSD but more than 22 percent met criteria for sub-threshold PTSD. Also, in addition to 4.5 percent of veterans diagnosed with PTSD within the last month, 13 percent had sub-threshold symptoms, the study reported. Veterans with sub-threshold PTSD had a 20 percent chance of suffering from major depression in their lifetimes, compared with about 4 percent of veterans without sub-threshold symptoms, the study found.
From his kitchen table in Italy via Skype, deported U.S. Army veteran Arnold Giammarco said the years apart from his family have been “devastating.”
“It’s tough,” said Giammarco, a legal non-citizen veteran of the Army and National Guard, during a Skype interview with C-HIT. He was deported in November 2012 for nonviolent drug and larceny convictions for which he had previously served jail time. “You can’t hold your wife,” he said, dabbing tears from his eyes. “You can’t hold your daughter.”
Giammarco, 60, had lived in the United States since he was 4, but never became a citizen. In 2011 federal immigration officers arrested him at his home in Groton and detained him for 11 months, then deported him. He has been fighting to return to Connecticut ever since, with the help of free legal representation from Yale Law School clinics.
Some newly enrolled veterans seeking a primary care appointment at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) wait more than 90 days before they see a provider, and the agency’s way of calculating wait times understates them, according to a new report by a government watchdog office. “This most recent work on veterans’ access to primary care expands further the litany of VA health care deficiencies and weaknesses that we have identified over the years,” Debra Draper, director of the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) health-care team, said in testimony to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “As of April 1, 2016, there were about 90 GAO recommendations regarding veterans’ health care awaiting action by VHA … (including) more than a dozen recommendations to address weaknesses in the provision and oversight of veterans’ access to timely primary and specialty care, including mental health care. “Until VHA can make meaningful progress in addressing these and other recommendations,” she added, “the quality and safety of health care for our nation’s veterans is at risk.”
The new GAO report looked at wait times for newly enrolled veterans seeking primary care appointments at six VA medical centers around the country. Among a random sample of 180 of those veterans, 60 who requested care had not been seen at all by primary care providers, in some cases because the VA never contacted them or because they were left off an eligibility list in error.
In response to requests from a Connecticut veteran and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal Thursday called on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to extend Agent Orange benefits to veterans who served in Korea in 1967. “Eugene Clarke, of Redding, Connecticut has been instrumental in bringing a light to shine on these problems,” Blumenthal said, referring to the Army veteran who has spent years fighting to get benefits for veterans who served in Korea in 1967. C-HIT first reported on Clarke’s efforts Tuesday. The VFW presented testimony Wednesday to the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs committees, asking that the VA grant benefits to veterans with illnesses that have been linked to Agent Orange exposure. Now, the VA provides the benefits to veterans who served in Korea from 1968 to 1971.
A Connecticut veteran who has spent years trying to gain Agent Orange benefits for veterans who served in Korea in 1967 has persuaded the Veterans of Foreign Wars and two other veterans’ organizations to take his case before Congress. On Wednesday, VFW National Commander John A. Biedrzycki Jr. will ask Congress to pass a law requiring the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to grant VA health care and compensation to veterans who served in Korea in 1967 if they have illnesses linked to Agent Orange. Biedrzycki’s prepared testimony states that current VA rules exclude many veterans “who now suffer from diseases and illnesses that have been directly linked to the chemical defoliant.”
Carlos Fuentes, VFW senior legislative associate, said documents provided by Army veteran Eugene Clarke of Redding swayed the national organization to seek the benefits change through Congress. The documents include proof of test spraying of defoliants in Korea in 1967 and of veterans’ exposure to Korean government spraying. Fuentes said VFW efforts to convince the VA to change its policy have been unsuccessful.