Veterans with PTSD sue over Pentagon's failure to upgrade less-than-honorable discharges

By EDMUND H. MAHONY | The Hartford Courant (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 18, 2017

A Connecticut veteran filed a class-action lawsuit on Monday to force the U.S. Army to be more supportive of veterans who the suit claims are routinely separated from the service with less-than-honorable discharges after displaying symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

Veteran Stephen Kennedy of Fairfield claims in the suit that the Army is not giving serious consideration to requests to upgrade the discharge statuses of soldiers dismissed for behavior consistent with PTSD, even though federal law and a Department of Defense directive requires the service to do so.

A less-than-honorable discharge can have lifelong consequences. Veterans are denied educational assistance through the GI bill as well as certain mental health and disability benefits that can help them recover. So-called "bad paper" discharges can also be a long-term impediment to housing and employment.

Kennedy, who was in Iraq and Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne in 2007 and 2008, was highly decorated by the Army and is a founder of the state chapter of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

He sued individually late last year. But he amended the lawsuit and refiled as a class action after retaining the services of the Yale University Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic. Bringing suit with Kennedy is Alicia J. Carson, a former Connecticut resident and veteran of the U.S. Army and the Connecticut Army National Guard who now lives in Alaska.

Kennedy and Carson claim to be suingon behalf of the tens of thousands of veterans who were given less-than-honorable discharges for often petty offenses associated with PTSD and then denied upgrades to honorable, in spite of medical and psychiatric evidence of their disorders.

While in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kennedy was a Humvee turret gunner and machine gun operator and regularly served as security for supply convoys between western and central Iraq. During his first months of convoy duty, his unit was hit by or discovered improvised explosive devices about twice a month.

"After 14 months in Iraq, I was expecting to be blown up," Kennedy said. "I was waiting for that IED with my name on it."

Kennedy was on a fast track to promotion to sergeant when he began acting out of character; he said he realizes it now. When denied leave to be married, he said he went AWOL, or absent without leave. The offense led to his diagnosis with depression and ultimately his separation from the service.

"As my PTSD became impossible to manage on my own, my commander told me that the only way I could receive treatment was by leaving the Army with a bad paper discharge," Kennedy said. "Just like that, the Army wiped away years of distinguished service to my country and deemed it less than honorable."

After his discharge, Kennedy said he seemed to be under a compulsion to engage in risky behaviors, intentionally injuring himself or behaving in ways he knew to be dangerous. After being treated, he said he married, had two children, graduated from college and embarked on a Ph.D. program in chemistry.

The class-action suit was announced Monday at a press conference by the Yale law veterans clinic and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

"This case is a matter of justice, plain and simple," Blumenthal said. "Steve Kennedy has been through hell. PTSD is one of the invisible wounds of war. If he had been shot or the victim of [an] IED, he would have been treated completely differently."

Following an early suit by Conley Monk, a U.S. Marine Corp. veteran of Vietnam, Blumenthal persuaded former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hegel to order the Pentagon to view requests for discharge upgrades in terms more favorable to veterans diagnosed with PTSD.

Blumenthal said Monday that the so-called Hegel memorandum is not being enforced.

The suit asks a federal court to upgrade Kennedy and Carson to honorable discharges and to order the Pentagon to employ "consistent standards" when considering the effects of PTSD on discharge status.

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