Tyson Manker, a Marine who said he was discharged from the military after suffering from PTSD, calls on then-President Barack Obama to make the Veterans Fairness Act happen with executive action on Sept. 13, 2016.

Tyson Manker, a Marine who said he was discharged from the military after suffering from PTSD, calls on then-President Barack Obama to make the Veterans Fairness Act happen with executive action on Sept. 13, 2016. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – By the age of 21, Marine Corps Cpl. Tyson Manker led infantrymen into battle in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. His actions as a Marine garnered him the Presidential Unit Citation and other awards, yet the military doesn’t consider his service as honorable.

Manker endured intense combat, saw civilians killed and witnessed the death of a close friend – experiences that caused nightmares and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder that only worsened when he returned home.

Later that year while on leave, Manker was caught with marijuana, which he used to self-medicate. He was kicked out of the Marine Corps for misconduct with an other-than-honorable discharge.

“It’s a national disgrace for the federal government to say someone doesn’t have honor because they didn’t handle the stresses of war the way some bureaucrat back stateside thinks they should’ve,” said Manker, now 36 and an attorney in Illinois.

Having tried and failed to get an upgrade, Manker is now the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed Friday against the Navy in the U.S. District Court in Connecticut. The suit claims the Navy has an institutional bias against veterans with PTSD. The National Veterans Council for Legal Redress is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. It’s a Connecticut-based group comprised of veterans with other-than-honorable discharges.

It’s estimated that tens of thousands of servicemembers suffering from PTSD or other mental health conditions caused by their wartime experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have been kicked out of the military with other-than-honorable discharges, known as “bad paper.” The status precludes them from receiving medical care and other benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Worse still, Manker said, is the stigma associated with the discharge status.

“We’re in a system of punishing those who serve on the frontlines,” said the veteran, who has been haunted by his other-than-honorable status for years.

The Navy Discharge Review Board, responsible for discharges of sailors and Marines, has granted upgrades in only 15 percent of cases since 2016 in which PTSD was a contributing factor, according to the suit. In comparison, the Army granted upgrades in 45 percent of the same kind of cases and the Air Force granted 37 percent.

“My hope with this is that the discharge review board will start following the law, plain and simple,” Manker said. “It’s about principle. It’s about restoring honor.”

After Manker was kicked out of the Marines, a civilian doctor diagnosed him with PTSD. He was later denied mental health care by the VA, and he continued to self-medicate. He said he struggled with suicidal thoughts.

Manker turned things around in 2011, when he began seeing another civilian doctor who also diagnosed him with PTSD. His health improved, he went to college and then law school.

In 2016, the Navy Discharge Review Board denied his upgrade request despite his multiple PTSD diagnoses.

The lawsuit filed Friday requests Manker’s discharge be upgraded to honorable and the Navy follow Defense Department policy that requires review boards to give “liberal consideration” to veterans who seek to upgrade their discharges because of mental health conditions.

A policy change was made in August in an attempt to afford more leniency to veterans, but the suit claims the Navy board continues to unlawfully deny upgrades.

The lawsuit was filed by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, overseen by Michael Wishnie, which has filed other lawsuits in recent years seeking to change the military’s treatment of veterans with other-than-honorable discharges.

The suit has the potential to include tens of thousands of veterans. The Government Accountability Office released findings in 2017 that the Defense Department separated approximately 92,000 servicemembers for misconduct from 2011 through 2015, and 57,000 of them were diagnosed with PTSD, traumatic brain injury or other conditions that can change servicemembers’ moods and behaviors and lead to disciplinary problems.

Like Manker, many of them are disqualified them from receiving any VA health care or other benefits because of their discharge status.

“He’s not afraid to sue the DOD,” Thomas Burke, a Marine Corps veteran with bad paper, said of Wishnie. “That’s really what it takes.”

Burke isn’t part of this lawsuit. He has an attorney and is working on an upgrade request, but he hasn’t filed one yet. Looking at the numbers, he’s not too confident he’ll be approved.

In Afghanistan in 2010, Burke came close to committing suicide. At the time, he was already diagnosed with PTSD. Six months after his near-suicide, he was kicked out of the Marines.

Now he advocates for other veterans with bad paper. He’ll graduate from Yale in May with his Masters of Divinity, intent on becoming a minister. What he really wants, he said, is to be a military chaplain. But his bad paper makes that impossible.

“I know I’d be in a place to love and care for these soldiers and Marines better than anyone else could, and I’ll never get that opportunity,” Burke said. “Just the rhetoric, the language of ‘other-than-honorable’ – it hurts. It’s isolating. It’s a chip on my shoulder.”

There are a lot of veterans out there who feel the same, Manker said, and many of them don’t know what they can do. Even as an attorney, Manker described the requirements to prove an upgrade as daunting.

With the lawsuit, he’s hoping that process is made easier.

“How do we expect them to do what I, as an attorney, failed to do with the discharge review board?” Manker said. “If I can’t prove my case, who can?”

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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