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Widow's fight: A 40-year-old suicide, a 'bad paper' discharge, and marijuana

By BILLY COX | Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. | Published: October 28, 2018

SARASOTA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Joanne Mills was all of 19, never had a boyfriend, when he sold her two pairs of shoes at the Thom McAn store in a Boston mall. "He had the most beautiful piercing blue eyes I've ever seen," she recalls. She went home with buyer's remorse — too expensive. She returned one pair hours later; the blue-eyed heartthrob was still working his shift. He asked her something like, do you ever go to the beach?

It was the summer of 1971, and Peter MacRoberts, 21, had a sky-blue two-door Ford Fairlane with a black ragtop. They went everywhere, day trips to Cape Cod, rock concerts, Frank Zappa, The Eagles, Chicago. He was a sports nut, loved to play baseball, cheer the Red Sox at Fenway Park, and recite batting averages, ERAs.

But Peter was broken, and the full extent of it never became clear until much later. Even when she walked in on his unlocked apartment when they were still dating, and found him alone, electrical cord wrapped around his neck, racked with shame and despair — even then, Joanne underestimated its magnitude.

"I blocked out so much. I thought it was because we had broken up," Joanne remembers. "But I never pursued it. I was just a kid. He made me promise I would never leave him."

They married on November 30, 1973. But things were never right. Months before they met, he had been evicted from the Navy on an "undesirable" discharge rap. Over a $10 bag of marijuana. "And he never got over it," says Joanne. "He was very ashamed — it was such a stigma, he couldn't shake it, being thought of as undesirable. He was just so sad all the time."

Three times during their marriage, and with the help of her father, who had been a POW in World War II, Peter appealed for a discharge upgrade, to no avail. He tried padding his emotional tailspin with drugs like cocaine, psilocybin mushrooms and marijuana. Fatherhood in 1977 barely tapped the brakes. By late 1978, he and Joanne were separated.

A week before Christmas, Peter hanged himself from a tree in the woods near Walpole, Massachusetts.

Some wounds never heal

A recent full-time resident of Sarasota, Joanne Mills — and her long-shot efforts to upgrade her first husband's military discharge status — is living proof that some wounds never heal. And her story falls into a grim continuum detailed by the Herald-Tribune in a special project, published in August, called "Warriors Rise Up."

According to the most recent Department of Veterans affairs statistics, 20.6 veterans and uniformed personnel take their lives each day, a suicide epidemic more than double civilian rates. Of those, six had recently received VA health care benefits, while 14 did not.

In 2016, the Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School produced a study called "Underserved: How the VA Wrongfully Excludes Veterans with Bad Paper." It found that since the Vietnam War, nearly 2 million veterans have been dispatched with general or less than honorable discharges. Such "bad paper" can inhibit or deny completely their access to VA services.

"Bad paper" veterans — or at least those who been administratively separated, as opposed to being expelled by full-blown court martials — can challenge that status by appealing to their respective service branch discharge review boards for upgrades. Or they can take their cases directly to the VA, which can re-evaluate a veteran's record through a character of discharge (COD) review, which the Harvard report describes as "highly burdensome on the agency and the veteran."

The report revealed that applicants must wait an average of 1,200 days before getting a ruling, and that 90 percent of bad-paper veterans have received no COD reviews. Furthermore, three-quarters of bad-paper veterans diagnosed as having post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury are denied benefits eligibility. Ominously, perhaps, the percentage of veterans with other than honorable discharges has leaped from 2.5 percent during Vietnam to 5.8 percent from 2002 to 2013.

Attorney Tyson Manker, an Iraq veteran who was busted in rank and ejected from the Marine Corps on an other than honorable discharge for admitting to smoking marijuana in 2003 during a 30-day leave to the U.S., is part of a class action lawsuit against the Navy Discharge Review Board, claiming it is biased against those with PTSD.

The Defense Department does not specifically itemize the nature of veterans' offenses, but Manker suspects as much as 80 percent of bad paper involves drugs, and that 90 percent of those involve marijuana.

"There's a group meeting I attend regularly, mostly Vietnam guys," Manker told the Herald-Tribune, "and when I recount that I was kicked out for smoking pot they're like, 'What? Really? Because we were doing like smack and s---.' Smoking a doobie was kind of a regular thing for everyone back then.

"I'm not saying the military should allow bongs on base or anything like that, but to destroy someone's life over pot is insanity. What we're finding now is a lot of honorably discharged veterans are using marijuana to cope with a variety of ailments they have."

Looking for vindication

Forty years after his death, Peter MacRoberts' widow clings to the slim hope of vindicating his name by working through the system.

Joanne Mills says Peter wanted to be a history teacher, but couldn't afford college. After joining the Navy in 1969, MacRoberts was assigned to Naval Air Facility El Centro in California. He was busted for marijuana possession in December 1970, when he was apparently caught in the middle of a $10 transaction. He also admitted taking amphetamines on guard duty, and dropping acid while on leave in Boston.

"There was an intense feeling against the war by most people I worked with on base and most smoked marijuana," he stated in his third appeal for a discharge upgrade in 1977. "Many had been to Vietnam, and most were going after this tour of duty." Anticipating his own deployment to Southeast Asia "caused me much emotional turmoil," he added, "and getting drunk and smoking marijuana helped to ease my mind." MacRoberts' appeal was based on his clean legal record over the ensuing six years in civilian life, as well as the birth of a daughter.

Over the years, Joanne Mills has argued that military duty exposed Peter to drugs, and that its culture bears some responsibility for his demise.

"The (Navy Review) Board concluded these factors were not sufficient to warrant relief in your case because of your husband's misconduct that resulted in the wrongful possession, use and sale of drugs and marijuana," the Navy informed Mills in 2017.

Mills refuses to give up. In May, as a result of Freedom of Information Act request, she received 700 pages worth of records on Peter's service. The Disabled American Veterans is handling her appeals now. She visited his grave in Abington, Massachusetts, on Memorial Day. Strange, the things that pass for keepsakes.

Following the birth of their daughter Sarah, Peter gave Joanne, and his mother-in-law, schefflera plants for Mother's Day. Joanne's plant died, but her mother's flourished and grew to a height of six feet. Sarah's maternal grandmother gave her the schefflera, but it died. Rather than toss the planter and its gnarly withered roots, Sarah's grandma told Sarah she should keep it. Sarah has now passed it down to her own kids.

"That's how my grandchildren know it — it's the Dead Daddy Plant," says Mills, whose grandkids are now 10, 14 and 16." Her tears are abrupt, as if from a fresh wound. "He needs to know he was an honorable man. He should've been in rehab. And I didn't know how to help him."

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