Connecticut veterans’ leader and decorated soldier Stephen Kennedy has won his eight-year battle to have his Army discharge status upgraded to honorable. Kennedy, of Fairfield, president of the Connecticut branch of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA-CT), will continue his federal class action lawsuit on behalf of Army veterans nationwide who received less than honorable discharges for behavior later attributed to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Kennedy said in an interview that his Army service “was really central to my identity. I was really proud of that. To have them say it was less than honorable, to have that kind of stamp on it…has been a cloud over the memory of my service.”
“It’s hard not to really take that to heart,” he said, adding that having the upgrade “really feels great.”
The Army Discharge Review Board reversed Kennedy’s previous status called “general under honorable,” which deprived him of veterans’ education benefits and the pride and respect connected to an honorable discharge. Kennedy, 31, served in Iraq for 13 months. In the Army, he was given leadership positions, fast-tracked to become a sergeant and honored with several awards including the Combat Infantry Badge, Army Commendation Medal and Army Achievement Medal. His discharge status was based on his going Absent Without Leave (AWOL) for his wedding and honeymoon, a behavior he later said was uncharacteristic for him and based on PTSD, which had resulted from his military service. He had become suicidal and self-destructive, cutting himself and drinking and smoking heavily.
A new federal law will allow hundreds of Connecticut veterans with “bad paper” discharges to be eligible for long-term mental health care for the first time, and thus reduce their suicide risk. U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., a co-sponsor of the law, said it will “change the lives of veterans.” The legislation was included in the federal budget signed last Friday by President Trump. The new law affects veterans with an “other than honorable (OTH)” discharge, a status increasingly given for minor offenses. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs usually denies benefits to veterans with OTH discharges, even though Congress stipulated in 1944 that only severe conduct that would lead to court martial and dishonorable discharges should disqualify veterans from basic VA care. Many veterans have maintained that their minor offenses were triggered by service-related mental health issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Under the new law, veterans with OTH discharges who either served in combat areas, were victims of military sexual trauma, or operated drones are eligible for VA mental health and behavioral health care.
Marriage and struggles with religion and spirituality significantly raise the suicide risk for veterans, according to a study funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “Transitioning back into a domestic home environment may prove exceedingly difficult,” resulting in an increased suicide risk for veterans who are married or living with a partner, the study states. In addition, suicide risk rises substantially for veterans undergoing strains in their religious and spiritual lives, the study shows. Such strains include beliefs expressed by veterans that they have been abandoned by God, that God doesn’t love them or is punishing them. On the other hand, no effect on suicide risk was seen when veterans reported positive religious and spiritual connections.
Veterans’ mental health and housing improved when they accessed free legal services in a Veterans Affairs facility, according to a study of veterans in Connecticut and New York City. The more legal services they had, the better they fared, experiencing reduced symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and psychosis, spending less money on abused substances and having better housing situations, the study found. In addition, the study concluded that mental health was improved even if veterans lost their legal battles. The study analyzed the legal/medical partnerships between the nonprofit Connecticut Veterans Legal Center (CVLC) and VA Connecticut Healthcare and between New York Legal Assistance and two VA hospitals. It looked at free legal help given to 950 veterans from 2014 through 2016 and its effects on the mental health, housing, and income of 148 of those veterans followed closely for a year.
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.
The federal government will pay for disabled veterans now residing in assisted-living facilities, under a bill passed by Congress in December. But the measure doesn’t cover veterans who may move to such places in the future. Disabled veterans living at retirement homes, including those at Seacrest Retirement Center in West Haven, HighVue Manor in Hamden, and Mattatuck Health Care in Waterbury, were told in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that coverage of their housing was a mistake and would end. The coverage began in 2010. U.S. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro obtained extensions for the Connecticut veterans who sought her help and she proposed the language in the bill approved that ensured their coverage would continue.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has backed off a controversial plan that would have changed the way it determines Medicare coverage for advanced prosthetics – a plan critics said would have affected tens of thousands of veterans nationwide. CMS had issued a draft proposal, known as a Local Coverage Determination for Lower Limb Prostheses, that critics feared would limit access to prosthetics for amputees, including veterans. Following a public comment period that ended in August and a review of those comments, CMS on Monday announced it would not finalize the draft policy. “Both CMS and its contractors have heard concerns about access to prostheses for Medicare beneficiaries,” according to a statement provided by CMS spokeswoman Helen Mulligan. CMS said it would convene a work group in 2016 to examine the lower limb prostheses issue.
Taking certain prescription painkillers or anxiety medications for long periods of time may increase patients’ risk of death, according to a recent Yale School of Medicine study of veterans. Researchers who examined the medical records of about 64,000 veterans found that patients who took opioids or benzodiazepines long-term, for 90 days or more, had a higher risk of death – from any cause – than those who did not. The risk of death was even greater for patients who took both types of medication at the same time. More than a quarter of the veterans studied were HIV-positive, and they had a higher risk of death than those without the virus. Opioids are painkillers that include Vicodin and Oxycontin while benzodiazepines, such as Valium, typically are prescribed to treat anxiety and insomnia.
It has taken more than 40 years, but Connecticut veteran Conley Monk has won his battle to have his military discharge status upgraded and can now receive federal benefits. Monk, 66, and four other Vietnam War veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) were granted upgrades by the Pentagon after filing a federal lawsuit in March 2014 against the Armed Forces. The veterans had received Other Than Honorable (OTH) discharges, which they contend were based on behaviors later attributed to PTSD. PTSD was not designated as a medical condition until 1980. The five veterans were given General Under Honorable Conditions discharges.
Veterans’ exposure to toxic chemicals may harm their families’ health for generations, causing cancer, birth defects and other medical problems, according to U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal. He is co-sponsoring legislation to require that veterans be informed of their exposure to toxic substances and to establish a research center focusing on the illnesses of exposed veterans’ descendants. Blumenthal, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said that “the dimensions of the problem are unknown at this point” because no one has collected data on it. But, he added, “we know the toxic exposure is there. Science indicates it can cause genetic effects.” He cited brain and blood cancers as potential repercussions.