As a young soldier fighting in Vietnam in 1969, John Shepherd Jr. responded to an ambush by tossing a hand grenade into a bunker that killed several enemy soldiers. He was awarded a Bronze Star with a valor device.
A few weeks later, his platoon leader was killed by a sniper, Shepherd told The New York Times, as he was trying to help Shepherd out of a canal. Shepherd’s behavior became erratic, and soon he refused to go on patrol.
After a court-martial, the Army discharged Shepherd under other-than-honorable conditions, then known as an undesirable discharge, which, the Times reports, meant that veterans benefits were denied.
Shepherd is now part of a class-action lawsuit against the armed forces arguing that he and other Vietnam veterans had post-traumatic stress disorder when they were given other-than-honorable discharges, according to the Times. The suit, which was filed in Federal District Court and names as defendants the secretaries of the Army, Air Force and Navy, demands that their discharges be upgraded.
The suit, the Times noted, raises two issues that could affect thousands of Vietnam vets: whether they can retroactively be given a diagnosis of PTSD though the disorder was not identified until 1980; if so, whether recent policies intended to protect troops with PTSD should be applied retroactively to their cases.
Shepherd’s legal team, students with the Yale Law School veterans legal clinic, argues yes on both counts, the Times reports. In court papers, they assert that it is reasonable to assume that Shepherd and other veterans who were later given PTSD diagnoses began exhibiting symptoms while they were in service, accoridng to the Times.
Under rules issued during the Iraq war, troops who say they have PTSD must be given medical examinations before they are forced out of the military, to ensure that problematic behavior is not linked to the disorder, the Times reports. Servicemembers given a PTSD diagnosis may still receive an honorable discharge.
“Vietnam War-era veterans, in contrast, have been denied this opportunity for appropriate consideration of the PTSD,” the Times quotes the students as saying in the complaint.
The suit could have a wide impact. The students told the Times that more than a quarter million Vietnam-era veterans were discharged under other-than-honorable conditions, and that thousands of them probably had PTSD.
A Department of Veterans Affairs doctor in 2004 gave Shepherd a diagnosis of service-connected PTSD, according to the Times. As a result, the department will provide health care for his PTSD, but not general medical care, unless he is found to have other health problems related to his service.
Veterans disability compensation also is a problem. Shepherd’s undesirable discharge was upgraded to a general discharge in the 1970s under a Carter administration program, and that should have made it easier for him to apply for disability compensation, the Times reports. But subsequent legislation said clemency upgrades like Shepherd’s did not automatically qualify veterans for benefits. His compensation claim was ultimately rejected, according to the Times.
Shepherd, 65, twice divorced, has battled with alcoholism and drug abuse, the Times reported. He lives in New Haven, Conn., getting by on Social Security and a Teamsters pension, the Times said. While he could use the extra money from disability compensation, equally important, he told the Times, is removing the taint of his discharge.
“I want that honorable,” he told the Times. “I did do my part, until I really felt it wasn’t worth getting killed for.”