Navy reservist wins fight, but broader battle confronts military members

 

The Washington Post

When I wrote about former Navy reservist Graciela Saraiva three weeks ago, her case was supposed to be closed.

I faulted the Navy for refusing to clear the Maryland woman’s military record after it kicked her out after a mistaken accusation of drug abuse.

A Navy spokesman told me that an October ruling was “the end of the Navy appeal process.”

Not so fast, sailor. Five days after my column was published, a Navy lawyer wrote a memo fully exonerating Saraiva, 23, of Olney, Md. She is now eligible to re-enlist — three years after being discharged for what the Navy subsequently admitted was an error.

“I’m so excited. I’m really relieved that it’s finally over,” Saraiva said. She may try to rejoin the military, possibly as an officer, when she graduates from college in a year or two.

The Navy kicked out Saraiva, a junior logistics specialist (E-3 rating), after her urine tested positive for codeine and morphine. It wouldn’t let her back, even after it conceded that she failed the test only because she was taking a prescription painkiller after oral surgery.

Saraiva credits media attention, here and elsewhere, for reversing the decision — and the Navy memo admitted as much. It said the Navy didn’t look good barring her re-enlistment while conceding that she hadn’t abused drugs.

“As a practical matter, the Department of the Navy should appear consistent in its judgments, particularly when the evidence provides a reasonable basis for relief,” wrote Robert Woods, assistant general counsel for the office of the assistant secretary of the Navy (Manpower and Reserve Affairs).

It is gratifying to see Saraiva vindicated. But it is distressing to report that she was just one of many thousands of U.S. military personnel mistreated in the discharge process, and some suffer permanently.

As the armed forces shrink because wars are ending and budgets are tight, the brass is showing every sign of using disciplinary procedures short of courts-martial to get rid of people.

Service members are being pushed out, and ROTC cadets disenrolled, in higher numbers and for less-severe offenses than when the military was looking to expand, according to veterans organizations, military defense lawyers and academic experts.

In many cases, of course, the individuals deserve to go. But critics say far too many are being railroaded for comparatively minor misconduct, and often without proper legal support that would protect them. In the past, the military would look the other way for problems with tardiness or missing formation, or less-important instances of insubordination or alcohol abuse. Now, it’s enough to trigger a discharge.

“The pendulum has swung. In 2003 [to] 2004, anyone with minor, petty stuff, units were deploying them anyway. Now, because of budgetary issues, they’re no longer good enough to serve,” said Greg Rinckey, a former Army lawyer who now practices military employment law.

The dismissals often leave former service members with “general” or “other than honorable” discharges, which fall short of “honorable” ones. That typically blocks them from receiving federal veterans benefits and can cost them future jobs or security clearances.

“A lot of times, the misconduct that we’re talking about is . . . not enough, in my opinion, to merit this kind of indelible mark on your record,” said Phillip Carter, director of the veterans program at the Center for a New American Security.

Tom Berger, executive director of the Veterans Health Council of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said many veterans believe “that those kinds of [discharges] are the military’s way of downsizing without costing them any money.”

Vietnam Veterans of America and others have accused the Army of discharging thousands of soldiers since 2001 for erroneous diagnoses of “adjustment disorder” and “personality disorder.”

Cadets forced out of ROTC programs are asked to repay tens of thousands of dollars of scholarship money.

One such victim was Alex McArthur, 25. The University of Akron ROTC program disenrolled him after three years’ study and two weeks before he was to be commissioned as an Army ordnance officer.

The program said that when McArthur enrolled, he failed to disclose a minor drug incident that occurred when he was 16. It demanded that he repay about $25,000 in financial support.

After a two-year battle, McArthur established that he had disclosed the legal trouble at the start but that he did not receive a waiver that should have been routine. It cost him $30,000 in legal bills to avoid repaying the $25,000.

McArthur said the experience also cost him his childhood dream of following his father into the military.

“It’s earth-shattering to this day,” McArthur said. “I had put so much time and effort into this.”

The young men and women who volunteer to serve deserve better treatment. They shouldn’t need a news media spotlight to guarantee it.

© 2013, The Washington Post

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