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.
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.
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.
Two national veterans’ advocacy groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the U. S. Department of Veterans Affairs, saying it discriminates against victims of military sexual trauma who are seeking VA disability benefits. The suit was brought by Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). They want the VA to change what they consider to be burdensome regulations governing claims for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that are based on rape, sexual assault, or sexual harassment. They cite substantial gaps between benefit approvals for these claims compared to higher approvals for other PTSD claims.
The Yale Law School Veterans Legal Clinic is representing the plaintiffs and filed the suit in federal court in Washington, D.C.
The plaintiffs are asking that the rules conform to those governing PTSD claims based on combat trauma, Prisoner of War status, and fear of hostile military or terrorist activity, which are less stringent than those based on Military Sexual Trauma (MST) and are also situations that pose difficulty in obtaining corroboratory evidence. “The VA knows the current process makes veterans who’ve been harmed by military sexual harassment and assault jump through more hoops than other PTSD claimants,” said Anu Bhagwati, SWAN executive director and a former Marine Corps captain.