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Former Marine Conley Monk Has Discharge Upgraded

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Craig LeMoult
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When former U.S. Marine Conley Monk, of West Haven, Conn., received paperwork telling him that he’d won his decades-long fight to have his service recognized by the military as honorable, he was speechless.

“I didn’t even have any words. I was just so happy,” Monk remembered, leafing through the papers that came in the mail when his discharge was upgraded. “You know, I just wish my father and mother was alive because I wanted them to see this day.”

It has been a decades-long quest for Monk to clear his name and have his service in Vietnam recognized.

“I served honorably,” he said.

But Monk and his court papers say the trauma of war and resulting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder led him to start abusing drugs, fighting one of his superiors, and running off base. Military doctors didn’t recognize PTSD as a medical condition until 1980 — after the Vietnam war was done, and many veterans like Monk had already been discharged. That meant that Monk got an Other Than Honorable discharge for his behavior, rather than having his behavior recognized as a medical symptom.

If you’re in the military, a less-than-honorable discharge is like a terrible letter of recommendation from your only employer. Not only is it harder for you to find a new job, but it also means you're not guaranteed many benefits other veterans receive. If you’re from a patriotic military family like Monk was, it’s also loaded with stigma and shame.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Monk said, about his Other Than Honorable discharge. “Lifetime scar, lifetime stigmatation. What did I do that was so bad?”

Monk’s not alone. PTSD is estimated to affect about 200,000 Vietnam veterans. Many of those veterans received less than honorable discharges because of their PTSD.

Jennifer McTiernan, a lawyer who worked on Monk’s case through the veterans’ clinic at Yale Law School, said there are administrative boards that veterans can go to if they want to appeal old discharges or discharges that a lower board already reviewed. But for years, she said, the vast majority of veterans with PTSD who brought claims to the boards had their claims denied.

“We got files from veterans that had applied and been denied and within those files there would be the decisions from these boards. And a lot of times, you would see, they wouldn’t even mention [the veterans’] PTSD,” said McTiernan. “It was like that wasn’t significant enough.”

McTiernan and other members of Yale’s law clinic worked with five veterans, including Monk, to launch a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 80,000 veterans in early 2014. The lawsuit said the military’s appeal boards had failed to recognize PTSD as a reason for behaviors that led to the veterans’ less-than-honorable discharges. Ultimately, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel responded to the lawsuit with a memo telling the boards to take PTSD more seriously.

“This was a huge moment,” McTiernan said. “It seemed to us the Secretary of Defense had looked into the matter personally, saw the merits behind the filing of that class action lawsuit and issued new guidance to these boards that they needed to look at PTSD differently.”

A federal judge threw out the case, and the five veterans leading the class action lawsuit had to ask one more time to get their discharges upgraded. By July, all of them, including Monk, were approved.

Monk and the other leaders of the suit weren’t alone. According to a November report from the Yale Legal Clinic, boards that had been denying veterans the opportunity to upgrade their discharges at a rate of 95 percent were now granting upgrades to about 66 percent of veterans with a PTSD diagnosis.

But according to Yale Law School student Liz Dervan, who helped write the report, some veterans are still falling through the cracks. Dervan said after the Hegel memo, every veteran who appealed with symptoms of PTSD but without a diagnosis has still been rejected.

“That would seem to make sense — ‘We don’t have a diagnosis. How do we know the problem?’” said Dervan. But she said because many veterans don’t have subsidized health care through Veterans’ Affairs because of their bad discharges, it can be difficult for them to actually find a doctor who will diagnose them with PTSD.

“What we’re proposing is that when a veteran submits an application they’re able to get a referral to either the VA or an alternative healthcare provider so they’re able to get that mental health examination and have that included in their application,” she said.

Dervan also wants the Department of Defense to reach out to more veterans with PTSD and tell them they have a better chance of upgrading their discharge.

A Department of Defense spokesperson said that the department has made “extensive efforts” to reach out to veterans, especially through the media and through community groups. He said ultimately, the department can only process paperwork on those who choose to submit it.

As for Monk, he said he’s still fighting for his fellow veterans.

“At one point I didn’t care if my discharge got upgraded as long as the other veterans got their discharges upgraded,” he said. “There were so many of us that came back with bad papers.”

An NPR investigation with Colorado Public Radio in late October found some veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq were discharged for misconduct after their own struggles with PTSD. If those veterans ever appeal their discharges, they soon may find themselves glad that veterans like Connecticut’s Conley Monk led the way.

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