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Reporting on military life and veterans issues, in collaboration with the American Homefront Project.

Settlement Could Bring Discharge Upgrades For Soldiers With PTSD And Brain Injuries

Stephen Kennedy of Fairfield, Conn., received an honorable discharge from the Army after filing multiple upgrade applications and then, a lawsuit against the Army.
Image Courtesy Stephen Kennedy
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Stephen Kennedy of Fairfield, Conn., received an honorable discharge from the Army after filing multiple upgrade applications and then, a lawsuit against the Army.

Tens of thousands of former soldiers with less than honorable discharges from the Army might get upgrades soon. This month, a federal judge is expected to approve a nationwide class action settlement that would force the Army to reevaluate and possibly upgrade those discharges to honorable if there’s evidence of a mental health condition.

The agreement calls on the Army to go back and look at thousands of less than honorable discharges for soldiers who served during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. If they had a condition like post traumatic stress or a brain injury, they can become eligible to upgrade their discharges, and get access to benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Joshua Britt, a law school student at Yale University, helped file the lawsuit at Yale’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic to change how the Army handles past and future upgrade requests.

“Opening up the possibility of receiving an honorable discharge for our class members can be a very positive thing for them as it opens up a wide range of government benefits they may not have been eligible for,” Britt said.

If approved, the settlement would expand reapplication rights for some former soldiers, and grant automatic reconsideration for others.

The lawsuit started four years ago with Iraq War veteran Stephen Kennedy. He came home with depression and PTSD which spiraled into alcohol abuse and self harm. The Army gave him a general discharge, blocking him from some veterans’ benefits, and denied his upgrade applications until he sued.

“You can't get the benefits you need to actually recover from the thing that got you discharged in the first place,” Kennedy said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates as many as 20% of Iraq War veterans experience PTSD.

Honorable discharges are the gold standard among veterans. The designation comes with full access to VA benefits like health care, disability benefits and higher education.

But discharge status isn’t just about benefits. Bart Stichman, executive director at the National Veterans Legal Services Program, said there’s a stigma attached to less than honorable discharges.

“If you don't get an honorable, it's a ticket to underemployment,” Stichman said. “Because employers often ask if you served in the military, and if so what type of discharge did you get? And if it's anything other than honorable, then it's very likely that they won't hire you.”

In 2014, the Pentagon directed discharge review boards to give “liberal consideration” to veterans with PTSD. Stichman says the military tends to ignore that rule.

“Post traumatic stress disorder, TBI, military sexual trauma that existed while you were in service — that is supposed to be considered as mitigating circumstances that warrant an upgrade,” Stichman said. “The boards weren't paying any attention to that.”

The settlement would bring another big change: the Army Discharge Review Board could conduct upgrade hearings by phone. Joshua Britt at the legal services clinic said the move will make the process much less burdensome for soldiers.

“In the past, veterans would have to travel to Washington, D.C., to appear personally before the board, so the telephonic program should expand access,” Britt said.

A federal judge in Connecticut is scheduled to hear public comments March 24 before finalizing the settlement.

Alexander Conyers, deputy assistant secretary of the Army and director of the Army Review Boards, said in a statement the settlement was reached after months of negotiation, and called it a fair way to address soldiers’ concerns.

“The Army is actively gathering the necessary resources, in terms of personnel and administrative support, and taking the appropriate steps to plan for the efficient adjudication of any requests for reconsideration pursuant to this settlement,” Conyers said.

If it’s approved, Kennedy wants to see similar changes made to discharge review boards in the rest of the military.

“The fact that the Army is making this change, I think it's really hard to make the argument that the Navy shouldn't be doing the same thing for both the Navy and the Marines,” Kennedy said.

Or better yet, Kennedy hopes to eventually break the connection that ties benefits to discharge status.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.