Veterans Day for many veterans is not a proud occasion, but rather a painful reminder of sacrifice and betrayal by their country. I’m speaking of “bad paper” veterans, men and women who, despite their years of service, have been abandoned by the federal government and all but forgotten by the general public.
In the nearly 20 years since America’s longest wars began, more than 500,000 US troops have returned home with invisible wounds like post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries only to be dismissed from the military for minor infractions and given “less than honorable” discharges that deny them benefits, including Veterans Affairs benefits that would ensure access to treatment for PTSD and other service-related injuries.
These administrative separations, issued by commanding officers to lower-ranking troops for minor offenses—everything from lateness or insubordination, to alcohol issues, or even a single instance of self-medication—are akin to personnel decisions that give unit commanders great flexibility to remove and replace troops to maintain their unit’s “combat readiness.” But “less than honorable” is a stigma that few recover from. Take it from me.
In 2003, I was a non-commissioned officer in the Marine Corps infantry leading a squad of Marines in combat during the invasion of Iraq. By the time our deployment was over, countless innocent civilians who had nothing to do with 9/11 were dead or displaced, and we’d lost our beloved corpsman, Joshua McIntosh.
I returned home without a medical screening or chance to grieve, unknowingly stricken with post-traumatic stress disorder and destined for friction. On one of our first nights of liberty, I drank alcohol and at one point smoked cannabis off base with fellow Marines. Shortly thereafter, one of them got into trouble, and ultimately implicated me and others. I was quickly interrogated without counsel and threatened with 50 years in prison if I refused to confess to self-medicating, and I eventually complied.
Within weeks of combat, I was punished in lieu of treatment, stripped of my rank, fined a month’s pay, and restricted to base for 45 days. At the end of that time, I was administratively separated with an Other Than Honorable discharge. With months remaining in my four-year enlistment, the military sent me home in a shambles with nothing but a bad record. I was 21.
Contrasted with “bad conduct” and “dishonorable” discharges, which can be given only after a trial by court-martial with legal counsel and due-process protections, bad-paper reprimands occur in private with virtually no due process. This puts service members, including those with mental illness from war and those who’ve experienced military sexual trauma, at the mercy of a draconian system that does little to protect individual rights.
Less-than-honorable discharges, used to oust gay troops until the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” are given for a variety of behaviors attributable to PTSD, including self-medication—as I experienced. Most outrageous is when rape victims are punished with bad paper for reporting their assaults. Or the fact that right now black service members are “substantially more likely than white service members to face military justice or disciplinary action.” Bad-paper discharges continue to punish veterans for the remainder of their lives—an objectively disproportionate penalty.
After being ostracized from their peers and the military community, they’re permanently barred from most government jobs, and most often are not allowed access to VA health care or other much-needed benefits to ease transition out of the military. They face serious disadvantages in the job market, where employers routinely request service records when applicants identify as veterans.
Veterans branded as less-than-honorable are, unsurprisingly, a vulnerable population. Left to fend for themselves, they’re more likely to live homeless on the streets, suffer from substance abuse, become incarcerated, and die by killing themselves. It is no coincidence that more than 45,000 service members and veterans have committed suicide in the last six years.
Perhaps most disturbing is the military’s continuing failure to adequately address these long-standing issues. In 2017, 14 years after it warned about troops being sent home without medical screenings, the Government Accountability Office reported that the military was continuing to punish injured veterans with less-than-honorable discharges, even when their misconduct was attributable to PTSD or traumatic brain injury.
The national obligation to restore the honor of these veterans is more than a moral responsibility. It is a breach of the trust service members put in the military and, ultimately, a clear matter of national security.
Currently, two ongoing class-action lawsuits accuse the military’s review boards of unlawfully denying honorable discharges to veterans with PTSD and TBI. I am a plaintiff in one. Both cases have survived motions to dismiss from the government and are poised to break new legal ground. While these suits have made inroads, bad-paper veterans still face an uphill battle for justice that no single lawsuit can overcome. Even when review boards follow the law, veterans have to develop pointed legal arguments, often without assistance, and for some, it’s an insurmountable task.
What we need is leadership from Congress and the president.
Presidents have a long history of using executive authority to clear the records of veterans and civilians. In 1868, shortly after the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson granted all Confederate soldiers a “full pardon and amnesty for the offense of treason against the United States,” “unconditionally and without reservation.”
A century later presidents Ford and Carter, both WWII Navy veterans, used executive action after the Vietnam War to expunge criminal records and upgrade military discharges. They both issued proclamations giving men who had evaded the draft and those who had deserted amnesty and a second chance.
In one of his final acts before leaving office, President Obama commuted the 35-year sentence of Chelsea Manning, a former Army private convicted of stealing classified intelligence to give to Wikileaks.
If these individuals deserve presidential action, then so do bad-paper veterans.
This administration, or the next, should use the constitutional pardon power to restore the honorable discharges of troops with PTSD, TBI, and military sexual trauma through executive order. They deserve swift justice that only the commander in chief can deliver.
Beyond executive action, Congress should take a close look at the military’s practice of using less-than-honorable discharges as a weapon. Proper standards of review for discharge upgrades and records corrections should be legislated, and any rulings from litigation should be codified in the US Code.
All three branches of government must come to a permanent solution that protects the rights and well-being of the men and women who have served. The time has come to attack bad-paper discharges with the same vigor that launched the wars. Justice demands nothing less.