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Advocates: Fairness for Veterans Act is only 1 step in fight against 'bad paper' discharges

Kash Alvaro holds his Army Commendation Medal certificate he earned while fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan with Fort Carson's 4th Engineer Battalion on Sept. 22, 2015 in Trinidad, Colo. The decorated soldier, who suffered head injuries from a bomb in 2009, was kicked out of the Army in 2012 and is still an other-than-honorable soldier without benefits.

CHRISTIAN MURDOCK/THE GAZETTE VIA AP

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 15, 2016

WASHINGTON — While a measure protecting veterans with service-related conditions from receiving other-than-honorable discharges has made its way to President Barack Obama, advocates who led the effort to get it there want more to be done for the thousands of veterans they say were unjustly released.

With the backing of veterans organizations and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, the Fairness for Veterans Act was included in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which is awaiting the president’s signature.

If signed into law as expected, the measure would require Defense Department panels that review discharges to consider medical evidence from a veteran’s health care provider. Panels would have to review each case presuming that post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, sexual assault trauma or another service-related condition led to the discharge.

The measure expands and codifies a memo issued by former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in 2014. The memo called on the Department of Defense to give the benefit of the doubt to Vietnam veterans who sought to correct their military records, contending PTSD could have contributed to their other-than-honorable discharges.

Discharges that are other-than-honorable, including a “general” discharge, are known as “bad paper” and can prevent veterans from receiving federal benefits, such as health care, disability payments, education and housing assistance.

Fighting wrongful “bad paper” discharges has been a longtime goal of Vietnam Veterans of America. The group’s president, John Rowan, said the passage of the Fairness for Veterans Act “is a reason for every American to celebrate.”

“But we must keep the pressure on,” he said.

Veterans advocates and lawmakers estimate that 22,000 veterans with mental illnesses have received other-than-honorable discharges since 2009.

Vietnam Veterans of America have appealed to Obama to pardon all post-9/11 veterans who were administratively separated from the military and did not face a court-martial. In a letter to Obama, VVA compared it to President Jimmy Carter issuing an executive order in 1977 to pardon Americans who avoided the draft.

The group also called on President-elect Donald Trump to continue a pardon program.

“It would allow veterans to access health care and the GI Bill, so they can move forward with their lives,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, an Iraq War veteran who has advocated on behalf veterans with “bad paper” discharges for nearly a decade. “Denying these benefits does nothing to save money; it does nothing to help the United States military or civilian population. All it does is hamstring someone’s life.”

The Fairness for Veterans Act doesn’t automatically upgrade bad paper discharges. And many veterans may not hear of the change or seek to have their discharges upgraded, Goldsmith said. The process takes time and -- in some cases -- requires hiring a lawyer.

Goldsmith knows the trials of a “bad paper” discharge firsthand.

He was given a general discharge from the Army after surviving a suicide attempt in 2007. Goldsmith said he was diagnosed at the time with an adjustment disorder but was actually suffering from PTSD.

He and his lawyer have spent about 10 years appealing to the Defense Department for an upgrade.

“I’m still applying for a discharge upgrade; I’m sitting in the backlog,” Goldsmith said. “But I’ve recovered. I’ve found my purpose. My bad paper discharge motivated me to improve my life, and it’s now about making sure I’m there for veterans who haven’t been as lucky as me.”

Goldsmith works for Vietnam Veterans of America and started his own group, High Ground Veterans Advocacy.

Besides appealing to Obama and Trump, Goldsmith and the rest of Vietnam Veterans of America are asking lawmakers to hold hearings on the issue of bad paper discharges when they return for the 115th Congress in January.

Ideally, Goldsmith said, they would be joint hearings between the House and Senate committees on Veterans Affairs and Armed Services.

“We want Congress to face not just the veterans service organizations who have been educated about this issue, but the victims of the failed system and the lawyers who are working so hard to help them,” he said.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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