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Report: VA unfairly denied services to 125K post-9/11 veterans

By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 30, 2016

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs is wrongfully denying services to roughly 125,000 post-9/11 veterans with other than honorable discharges, according to a joint study released Wednesday by two veterans advocacy groups and Harvard Law School.

Some veterans are missing out on benefits such as healthcare, housing help for the homeless and disability services, in part, because the VA’s own rules are in contravention of the original GI Bill of Rights passed by Congress in 1944, according to the study. That represents roughly 6.5 percent of post-9/11 veterans, including more than 33,000 who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Veterans who have served since 9/11 are being excluded from the VA at a higher rate than any other generation of veterans,” said Dana Montalto, the study’s author and a Liman Fellow with the Harvard Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic. “They’re being denied very basic services.”

There has long been confusion over the status of so-called “bad paper” veterans -- servicemembers who received less than honorable discharges. The vast majority have discharge characterizations less severe than “dishonorable” or “bad conduct,” both of which can only be issued as a sentence in a court-martial. There also has been recent concern among advocates and lawmakers that troops with mental health disorders are being unfairly kicked out of the military with bad paper.

According to the report, congressionally passed rules stipulate that only those veterans whose conduct would have led to a dishonorable discharge in a court-martial should be denied VA services. But VA’s own internal rules contradict that and lead it to deny services to the vast majority of post-9/11 veterans with other than honorable discharges, including disabled veterans.

The report was commissioned by two veterans groups -- National Veterans Legal Services Program and Swords to Plowshares -- with assistance from Harvard Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic. It analyzed VA and Department of Defense records and 23 years of decisions by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.

VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson released a statement praising the report, saying department officials have been meeting with Swords to Plowshares and will continue to work with them to remedy the problem.

“I believe the report provides us, as a department, an opportunity to do a thorough review, take a fresh look this issue and make changes to help veterans,” he said. “Where we can better advocate for and serve veterans within the law and regulation, we will look to do so as much as possible.”

Swords to Plowshares also filed an official petition with VA to revise the departments regulations on veterans with other than honorable discharges. According to a VA statement, the department is studying the recommendations in order to issue a response, which it is required by law to issue.

Bart Stichman, co-executive director of National Veterans Legal Services Program, said the military is kicking out many servicemembers who have underlying mental health issues without going through a lengthy medical evaluation board process that often results in an honorable discharge. That means more veterans are receiving administrative separations with a less than honorable discharge than in previous generations.

“They want to get them off the rolls because they want them replaced with another soldier who can perform,” Stichman said.

druzin.heath@stripes.com
Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

The Department of Veterans Affairs seal on a gate at the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C.
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