Path To Reclaiming Identity Steep For Vets With 'Bad Paper'

Dec 11, 2013
Originally published on December 16, 2013 11:19 am

When Michael Hartnett was getting kicked out of the U.S. Marine Corps, he was too deep into post-traumatic stress disorder, drugs and alcohol to care as his battalion commander explained to the young man that his career was ending, and ending badly.

"Do you understand what I'm saying to you, son? It's going to be six and a kick," Hartnett recalls the commander telling him.

The "six" was an expected six months of hard labor in the brig. The kick happened at Hartnett's court-martial, and finally woke him up out of the haze.

"He said 'bad conduct discharge.' When he said that, my knees buckled," says Hartnett.

In 1993, after combat tours in the Gulf War and Somalia, Hartnett joined tens of thousands of veterans with "bad paper." They served but then conducted themselves badly — anything from repeated breaches of military discipline to drugs or more serious crimes. Under current law, the Pentagon and, in most cases, the Department of Veterans Affairs wash their hands of these veterans.

They lose benefits like the GI Bill for school or a VA home loan, but they also can't get VA health care and disability compensation, even for the PTSD that may have caused the bad discharge. No jobs programs from the government or the private sector; even VA homelessness prevention is geared only toward honorably discharged vets.

"You might as well have never even enlisted," says Hartnett. "[It's] worse than being a convicted felon."

Veterans with bad discharges stand apart, as troops returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan enjoy an outpouring of public goodwill and unprecedented spending at the VA. Even for veterans who get in trouble with the law there is a harsh divide. Vets who make their mistakes after getting out of the military with an honorable discharge have access to relief, like the special veterans' courts that are springing up around the country. They allow vets supervised treatment instead of jail time. If the same crime is committed by an active-duty soldier, the consequences are different, says Tom White, an Iraq veteran who taught law at West Point.

"It may be a month before they get out [of the military]. The command come down on you like a ton of bricks. Justice is typically served cold and hard," he says.

White directs the veterans' legal clinic at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. He and other advocates across the country see a wave of young vets having brushes with the law.

"We see it coming, and we see a deluge," says Sharon Schlerf, who runs Beacon Institute Military Support in Virginia. She likens the problems of some young vets with troubled veterans of the Vietnam generation, neglected for years, increasing the cost to the veterans and to society.

"From the incarceration to homelessness, all of the issues. ... If you don't capture them now, get them stabilized, then all we are doing is doubling those numbers," says Schlerf.

When the veterans can't get VA help, it's groups like Beacon that pick up the slack, which doesn't make economic sense, according to Phil Carter, an Iraq veteran at the Center for a New American Security.

"In many of these cases, there's a very good justification for giving bad paper," he says. "But at a strategic level, the government has to take the long view and ask whether they want to deprive these people of support for their lifetime, and shift the burden of care from the immense and very capable resources of the VA to communities and nonprofits across the country who don't have those resources. There's a very, very large cost to society by giving bad paper."

At a recent conference of veterans treatment courts in Washington, D.C., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, responded to a question about helping veterans with bad paper.

"I wouldn't suggest that we should in any way reconsider the way we characterize discharges at the time of occurrence," Dempsey said. "It is a complex issue and we all make choices in life that then we live with for the rest of our lives and I think we have to understand that as well."

Dempsey pointed out that there are ways to correct or revise a discharge.

But veterans with bad paper say myths and misconceptions surround the process. The most commonly held misconception is that an "other than honorable" discharge automatically upgrades after a few months or years. It does not.

Getting a discharge upgrade is possible with several categories of discharge. That's what Michael Hartnett did. After more than 15 years of PTSD-fueled drug abuse — through jail, psychiatric wards and homelessness — a discharge review board granted clemency. The board concluded that evidence of PTSD should have been considered at his court-martial in 1993.

"I was forgiven. It was the Marines saying, 'You've had enough, Michael. Go live your life. Do something with it.' I'd like to write them up and say, 'Look, with the chance that you've given me, this is what I've done with it,' " he says. Hartnett now gets education benefits, and he's using them to get a degree in social work, with the aim of helping other vets.

A discharge upgrade like his is uncommon, requires a lawyer and can take years. But there are remedies open to veterans with bad paper, who can appeal at the VA for a character of service evaluation.

"We encourage veterans who have bad discharges ... to file a claim. We'll then review it, and there's a possibility always that we'll find in favor," says Brad Flohr, a senior adviser at the VA.

Getting a veteran status with the VA is the goal for many community organizations. Johanna Buwalda, a Chicago-based therapist with The Soldiers Project, says she finds herself helping veterans complete the VA paperwork — no small feat.

"It's not easy to do," she says. "The problem is, if you have no job, you have severe PTSD, you don't trust anybody. There's these piles of paperwork, your own story you need to put together telling why you believe this discharge happened — which is re-traumatizing."

Buwalda says it takes impressive resolve to make it through the VA appeal. If a veteran can make it through all that paperwork without rage or despair, it's a sign that veteran might be on the way to recovery.

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Judges and police across the country are beginning to reckon with a large number of veterans entering the criminal justice system. Many states are setting up special courts that offer veterans treatment instead of jail time. Some states have wings in prisons where veterans can live in a military style.

But these solutions mostly help veterans who broke the law after receiving an honorable discharge from the military. Vets who commit a crime before they're discharged can wind up paying a much bigger price. NPR's Quil Lawrence continues our series Other Than Honorable.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: It's a bit like showing up for formation.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Blowing whistle) Shirts tucked in, no head gear.

LAWRENCE: All these men are veterans. They only wish this was a barracks.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Coming down...

LAWRENCE: In the veterans wing of Indian Creek Correctional Center in Virginia, the men stand next to their bunks. It looks like a barracks, but the uniform is denim. And there's a headcount, like this, five times a day.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Twenty - 16...

LAWRENCE: Prisons in a few states across the country have some sort of veterans dormitory. The idea is to take advantage of veterans' shared experiences, to help them work on the issues that landed them here.

CHRIS: I was the only that didn't know I was messed up when I came home.

LAWRENCE: Chris served in the Marines for nine years, including Iraq and Afghanistan. He asked to go by only one name because of the stigma of being a convict. He says the war followed him home to Virginia.

CHRIS: There's always the memory. You don't forget any of it. And then the physical emotions and the feelings that are behind all of it, feelings around that know that you took somebody's life. The rush of fear - you know, my movie never stops. There's no ending and credits. It just continues to go on and on and on.

LAWRENCE: Chris led men in the second battle of Fallujah. Pride fills his voice when he talks about that. He can't fathom how he went from there to here, a state prison. Chris got home from Iraq, and got three DUIs in three months. He says there were even more times that the cops let him off because of his military ID. The fourth DUI got Chris four and a half years. Being with other vets in this dormitory has made it bearable.

CHRIS: I'm glad I was in here because there's a few other gentlemen, one that was actually in Fallujah with me. It was easy to adapt with other guys who have experienced what I've experienced.

LAWRENCE: At least in this wing people don't steal stuff, he says, and you can let your guard down a little. A large numbers of veterans have run-ins with the law. There are an estimated 700,000 in the correction system.

GAIL PAMUKOV-MILLER: The types of problems that are bringing people into the court - PTSD, chronic pain, substance abuse.

LAWRENCE: Gail Pamukov-Miller, a Michigan attorney, works with a veterans treatment court. There are at least 130 across the country that offer veterans supervised treatment instead of jail time.

PAMUKOV-MILLER: It's a non-adversarial, treatment-based approach. The job is to really provide continual education, support, in how to stay on track in the program.

LAWRENCE: Last month, Miller attended the first graduation ceremony at the Macomb Country vets court, north of Detroit.


LAWRENCE: One after another, graduates thanked the court for turning them around - like Frank Hubbard, an Iraq vet.

FRANK HUBBARD: My life has made a 180. I went from an unemployed, angry veteran who would get a job, get mad, beat somebody up. It was a revolving door.

LAWRENCE: Hubbard had come home from combat and started treating his PTSD by drinking heavily. Things were bad with his ex and one night, he showed up at her house. She called the cops, and they found out he was carrying a gun.

HUBBARD: I was facing a five-year prison sentence, and then one day Judge Jordan contacted me.

LAWRENCE: That's Judge David Jordan. He got Hubbard into vets' treatment court. Instead of jail time, Hubbard got three years of probation and therapy, with weekly tests for drug use. He should come out with a nearly clean record. Hubbard says the Army taught him to survive war but not civilian life or PTSD, which he says can feel like drowning in your worst memories.

HUBBARD: Veterans treatment court, you have helped me learn how to swim; and for that I thank you. and I'll be forever indebted to you.


LAWRENCE: Judge Jordan admits the courts give veterans special treatment, but he's OK with that.

JUDGE DAVID JORDAN: Other people, No. 1, haven't done what they did to earn our positive consideration and No. 2, other people don't have access to the VA benefits that at least a lot of these guys do.

LAWRENCE: Now, that last point is important. Jordan says judges are setting up vets courts because they should, but also because they can. VA benefits can fund all the treatment that the courts order, so these courts cost very little to the communities that start them. The VA doesn't pay for treatment of vets with a less than honorable discharge.

There's another important point - when the crime is committed: while you're still in the military, or once you're out. Tom White runs a veterans legal clinic in Chicago. He's an Iraq vet and has taught law at West Point. He says if you go to war, come home, get out with an honorable discharge and then get in trouble, plenty of resources are available.

TOM WHITE: On the other hand, an individual who is not out of the military - maybe a month before they get out, and they get a DUI; and the command come down on you like a ton of bricks. Justice is typically served cold and hard.

LAWRENCE: White says that distinction of when the crime is committed, can seem arbitrary. That might be why it's starting to get some attention. The first national conference of veterans' treatment courts was held last week in Washington. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, was among the speakers.


GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY: Thanks very much. It's I that should be giving you a standing ovation, but...

LAWRENCE: Dempsey talked about the issue of soldier re-entering society. The very first question from the audience was about vets with other than honorable discharges.

JUDGE CHARLES PATTON: Gen. Dempsey, my name is Charles Patton. I'm a judge in Cleveland, Ohio.

LAWRENCE: Judge Charles Patton runs the vets court there.

PATTON: Many occasions, I've had veterans come to court. They've served 10 or more years, and got a discharge other than honorable. What can we do to kind of help these guys who didn't get that honorable discharge?

DEMPSEY: It's a fascinating question, and one that I'm not at all adverse to examining. But it is a complex issue. And we all make choices in life that then we live with for the rest of our lives; and I think we have to understand that as well.

LAWRENCE: That's true, but veterans like Chris - the Marine in prison, in Virginia - wonder if every crime should carry a life sentence.

CHRIS: I don't want this anymore in my life. I want to come full circle, and I want to eventually come fully home from my war and, you know, live a normal, productive life.

LAWRENCE: Chris came very close to getting a bad discharge himself. If his trial for the DUI had taken place just a few weeks earlier, he would have still been in the Marines. He could have lost all his benefits. He says veterans' lives shouldn't turn on luck like that, or on the mistakes a young man makes when he's just home from war.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.