Vets with other-than-honorable discharge denied life-saving benefits

Several elected officials from South Florida and numerous agencies are planning a Veterans Outreach Event on Aug. 7 to help local veterans obtain benefits, driver’s licenses and IDs, bus passes and access to other services. The event’s organizers should be commended for their efforts.

Unfortunately, despite our collective commitment to provide for those who served in uniform, many who experienced combat and received serious physical and psychological wounds do not benefit from society’s attention and resources because they are not considered “veterans” under federal law.

As a result, they are often ineligible for the very VA programs that are meant to help them with a successful return to civilian life.

Many of these former soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen served in combat but received an “Other than Honorable” (OTH) discharge from service. Recent studies have established a strong connection between the types of injuries that today’s veterans are receiving, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, and the relatively minor misconduct that can lead to an OTH discharge.

For example, a 2010 study of 91,825 Marines found that war-deployed Marines diagnosed with PTSD were 8.6 times as likely to have a drug-related discharge compared with Marines without a psychiatric diagnosis, and were 11.1 times more likely to have a misconduct discharge compared to their peers who did not have a psychiatric diagnosis.

Misconduct attributable to combat injuries can take many forms. Service members might self-medicate with alcohol or drugs as a result of their PTSD symptoms. Self-medication with drugs is misconduct, and self-medication with alcohol often leads to incidents of misconduct. PTSD and TBI can also result in poor impulse control and impaired judgment. Many service members are discharged for relatively minor misconduct after they have already been found unfit for further duty as the result of combat injuries.

According to Department of Defense statistics, approximately 5 percent of those who served in the post-9/11 era received an OTH discharge. Many of those with an OTH discharge are not eligible for VA benefits, including compensation for combat and other in-service injuries, disability pension for low-income veterans, healthcare, education benefits and vocational rehabilitation as a result of their discharge. They must also carry the stigma of an OTH discharge, which can make securing employment difficult.

A denial of benefits following an OTH discharge is not automatic. After a service member receives an OTH discharge, VA makes an administrative determination as to whether the former service member is a “veteran” under federal law. This means that a VA worker decides whether these warriors are legally “veterans.” VA does not keep track of these determinations so we have no way of knowing exactly how many former services members are being denied “veteran” status.

While a denial is not automatic, in practice, VA’s default is to deny benefits to those with an OTH discharge, even for a single incident of misconduct.

The population of former service members that are denied veteran status remains largely invisible and unacknowledged in the national discourse on solving the problems faced by our nation’s veterans. They made the same sacrifices and carry the same burdens as “veterans,” but they do not receive the support that they desperately need to live a life of dignity.

It is essential that those who create programs on behalf of those who served our country are aware of the problems faced by non-veteran former service members so that they may design programs to fit the unique needs of this population. Nobody who served our country in uniform should be ignored and marginalized, particularly those who sacrificed so much in service of our country.

Liam McGivern is director of the Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc. Veteran Advocacy Project (VAP).