U.S. Veterans Push for Legislation to Correct ‘Bad Paper’ Discharge Effects

Veterans, politicians, advocates rally to support legislation that would ease reclassification of discharges for vets suffering from conditions such as PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury, or Military Sexual Trauma.

| Kristofer Goldsmith served with the Army’s Third Infantry Division in Iraq in 2005 as a Forward Observer, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom III. Being prepared to call in artillery strikes was not his only responsibility however, while he was deployed.

“Part of what I had to do was photograph dead bodies [our unit] would come across,” said Goldsmith, who was 19 at the time. This included photos of mutilated men, woman and children that had been murdered in Sadr City due to local violence.

Back in the United States after his tour was over, Goldsmith suffered from severe mental health conditions, which included depression, anxiety, panic attacks and bouts of uncontrollable anger. This reached a climax in 2007, when he attempted suicide by mixing alcohol and prescription medication. Goldsmith was found passed out, lying in a field of trees that had been planted for every soldier in their unit that had died in combat.

When Goldsmith awoke, he was a noncommissioned officer, a decorated combat veteran of the Iraq War, and close to the end of his enlistment contract. He was also handcuffed to a gurney, and would soon receive a general discharge for the incident. Along with his discharge, he would also lose some critical veterans’ benefits meant to help service members reintegrate into civilian life.

“I never got in trouble until I attempted suicide. When I woke up the next morning, I was treated like a criminal.”

A piece of legislation supported by thirty-nine veterans’ organizations would seek to change the way so-called ‘bad paper’ discharges are treated, allowing for more leniency in discharge upgrades. ‘Bad paper’ discharges are those which fall below the category of an ‘Honorable’ discharge. The Fairness for Veterans Act of 2016—recently adopted as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017—would shift the decision-making process toward a greater presumption in favor of veterans seeking to have their discharges reclassified who suffered from conditions such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), or Military Sexual Trauma (MST).

Fairness for Veterans support rally, Sept. 13 [Speaking: Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)(l)]
Fairness for Veterans Act support rally, Sept. 13 [Speaking: Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)(l)]
Under current conditions, veterans can be separated from military service based largely on the decisions of their commanding officers, with those decisions holding enormous influence over the services that veteran may be able to access later. More than 125,000 Post-9/11 veterans are denied access to basic Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care—including mental health services—due to the nature of their discharges, according to a recent report from the advocacy group Swords to Plowshares.

The proposal has brought together unlikely allies in support of the legislation, from members of both parties and chambers of Congress, to a constellation of veteran service and advocacy organizations that do not always agree on issues. Sponsored in the House of Representatives by Rep. Mike Coffman (R, CO-6) and in the Senate by Sen. Gary Peters (D, MI), the bill has a relatively even number of co-sponsors from both parties.

At a press conference held in support of the bill on September 13th, members of Congress and veterans spoke of the need to pass the legislation, and what prompted their support of the proposal.

“Many of the veterans who need the [VA] care the most are the ones being denied by the VA,” said Rep. Seth Moulton (D, MA-6). “We have a duty to live up to our promise as a country.” Rep. Moulton served four tours in Iraq as a Marine Corps officer.

(Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA))
([l-r] Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA), Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ))
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R, NY-1) spoke of the personal losses he had experienced, after having served as an Army officer in Iraq. “I’ve actually lost more friends to suicide than I have to combat.”

Further complicating the issue is the debate over which diagnoses are appropriate for a given situation, and the motives behind those determinations. While increasing numbers of service members have been discharged for misconduct in recent years, most are for relatively minor offenses and often possess symptoms of PTSD and/ or TBI. In some cases, service members are branded with ‘personality disorder’ in instances where it may not be appropriate to do so or be an accurate diagnosis. In at least one documented instance, a VA mental health official urged other health care providers to diagnose less instances of PTSD in order to save money.

The sense of frustration among some supporters of the legislation was obvious.

“I always believed this country would take care of us,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D, AZ-7). “Not only did it not take care of us, it punished us.” Rep. Gallego is a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War.

Critics of the bill point to the increase in cost to care for additional veterans, and in issues of access in an overburdened VA health care system.

Rep. Coffman, himself an Army and Marine Corps veteran who also served in Iraq, called for possible cuts to the Department of Defense to make up for any funding needs in caring for additional veterans. “This is a fundamental issue of justice. There are a lot of areas in the defense budget we can cut. [The Department of Defense] is way too top heavy.”

Kris Goldsmith, Fairness for Veterans Act rally, Sept. 13
Kristofer Goldsmith, Fairness for Veterans Act rally, D.C. Sept. 13

While his military career may have come to an end through unpleasant circumstances, Goldsmith has done well since. He now serves as the Assistant Director for Policy and Government Relations for the Vietnam Veterans of America. He also founded and serves as chairman of his own nonprofit organization, High Ground Veterans Advocacy, which led the fight to gain awareness and support for the Fairness for Veterans Act.

Rather than growing bitter over his treatment by the military, Goldsmith found solace in the ability for individuals to begin the process of enacting change through legislative procedures.

“The Fairness for Veterans Act is a perfect example of democracy working as intended. This set of reforms was driven directly by grassroots veterans calling on their elected representatives to act,” Goldsmith said. “The introduction of the Fairness for Veterans Act, it’s strong bi-partisan support, and this unprecedented coalition of veteran organizations shows that, in this time of political polarization, our leaders can still come together to do the right thing for veterans.”

Michael D. Connolly, Senior Political Correspondent, Lima Charlie News

Michael Connolly is a former Army Staff Sergeant who served in the Infantry, completing two combat tours to Iraq. He currently serves as the Director of Military and Veterans Affairs for the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland-College Park. Michael is a member of the Truman National Security Project Defense Council. He graduated with an M.S. in Political Science from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @MConnollyLC

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[Photo images by Michael D. Connolly]