Vet advocates, lawmakers fight for NDAA protection against less-than-honorable discharges
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 13, 2016
WASHINGTON — Veterans service organizations are pressuring lawmakers working on the National Defense Authorization Act to include an amendment protecting servicemembers with mental illness from less-than-honorable discharges.
Veterans advocates and lawmakers said Tuesday at a news conference outside the Capitol that about 22,000 veterans with mental illness have received less-than-honorable discharges, called “bad paper,” since 2009. Those veterans lose out on Department of Veterans Affairs health care, education benefits and consideration for jobs.
“This is a tragic situation,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich. “The thing is just to get it done and get these folks the help they’ve earned and deserve.”
An amendment called the Veterans Fairness Act was attached to the Senate’s passed version of the NDAA this summer with unanimous support. It 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 post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or sexual assault trauma led to the discharge.
Ten senators and representatives spoke Tuesday in favor of the amendment, and 49 veterans groups signed a letter of support. Peters – who introduced a bill targeting bad paper in 2015 – was optimistic that it would be attached to the final version of the defense bill.
“I’m very confident we’re going to get it done, but as with everything here on Capitol Hill, you can never say it’s done until it’s done,” Peters said. “So we’re going to keep the pressure up.”
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., and Tyson Manker, a Marine who said he was discharged from the military after suffering from PTSD, called on President Barack Obama to sign an executive order to make the reform happen. Manker, an attorney and law professor from Illinois who is running for Morgan County state’s attorney, returned home in 2003 from a tour in Iraq, suffering from symptoms of PTSD.
On leave, Manker was caught smoking marijuana, which he said he was using to self-medicate.
“The Marine Corps kicked me to the curb,” Manker said Tuesday. “It turned its back on me.”
Manker received an other-than-honorable discharge and was stripped of his GI Bill, Illinois Veterans Grant, signing bonus, service-related injury compensation and eligibility for VA health care.
When Manker later sought to upgrade his discharge status, he discovered others with mental health conditions faced the same bureaucratic challenges.
“I learned I wasn’t alone,” he said. “Tens of thousands of other volunteer servicemembers had met the same fate.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-NY, said the bill was an important reform for military sexual assault survivors.
“In too many cases when veterans suffer from trauma, including military sexual assault trauma, their psychological conditions were not properly recognized and they were given less-than-honorable discharges because of their symptoms,” Gillibrand said.
The NDAA conference committee is on a tight deadline to present a final bill. The Senate is scheduled to end its session Oct. 7.