For the last six years, Idervan DaCosta has endured shortness of breath and pain in his lungs that feels like they are on fire. This happens every couple of months and lasts a few weeks at a time. DaCosta attributes it to inhaling toxins while sleeping yards away from burn pits in Afghanistan. But the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) denied his application for disability benefits for the condition. Now, the Marine veteran and Brookfield resident has more hope.
Debra Geske, a Navy technician, was enjoying cranberry juice at a bar in Guam when a male sailor spiked it with a drug when she wasn’t looking. He and two other sailors drove her home and raped her. “I woke up the next morning full of blood,” she said. When Geske reported the rape to her petty officer in 2000, he said he couldn’t respond until higher-ups arrived on a Navy ship four weeks later. Then, officials told her it was a “he said she said” scenario, and “they did nothing,” she said.
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.
Sergeant William Davidson had been struggling with mental health problems since his deployment to Afghanistan. When he didn’t attend at least one of his Connecticut National Guard drill weekends, the Guard declared him AWOL (absent without leave) and discharged him with a “bad paper” separation. Four months after his discharge, Davidson, 24, fatally shot himself. Davidson, who had two younger sisters, is one among thousands of veterans who die by suicide each year. Despite national goals to prevent veteran suicides, they occur at disproportionately higher rates than in the general population.
Every day for 10 months in 2012, Peter Antioho walked through dense, black smoke from an open burn pit on his Army base in Afghanistan. Human and medical waste, plastic water bottles, ammunition and chemicals were among the materials burned with diesel fuel 24 hours a day. Five years later, Antioho was diagnosed with an aggressive, terminal brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme. The West Point graduate and Berlin resident was 31 when he was diagnosed, young for this cancer. He was second in command at his base, but now, with symptoms that include memory loss and impaired vision, speech and motor function, he can’t work.
A Connecticut Navy veteran who was sexually assaulted while serving in Japan has been awarded an honorable discharge after she challenged the “bad paper” discharge status she had been given. Bianca Cruz successfully defended her Navy record in an appeal to the Naval Discharge Review Board, which concluded that “she served honorably as evidenced by no punitive items in her record.” She was separated from the Navy in 2015 with a general (under honorable conditions) discharge, started the appeal process the next year and filed her appeal in November 2017. The board ruled Aug. 7 and notified her by email Sept. 17.
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.
A federal report has found that 62 percent of military personnel discharged for misconduct from 2011 through 2015 had been diagnosed with mental illnesses that could have caused their behaviors. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluded that the military failed to follow policies designed to prevent inappropriate discharge of service members with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). The result is many veterans received less than honorable discharges, making them ineligible for health care, disability benefits, or education aid from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The GAO said 57,141 service members discharged for misconduct had been diagnosed up to two years before their release with conditions that included: PTSD, TBI, adjustment disorders, alcohol-related and substance abuse disorders, depression and anxiety. The conditions, which the GAO called “signature wounds” of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, can affect moods, thoughts and behaviors and may trigger activities such as drug use, insubordination, absence from the military without permission, and crimes, the report states.
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.
In 2009, Edward LaPointe’s life hit bottom as he endured divorce, eviction, and homelessness. His earnings as a cab driver didn’t pay the bills and mental illness overwhelmed him. LaPointe, a Marine Corps veteran, was informed that he was no longer eligible for Social Security disability benefits. While the VA helped him obtain housing, the pro bono Connecticut Veterans Legal Center got his Social Security back. “All my anxiety left.