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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Life After An Other-Than-Honorable Discharge

Michael Hartnett was a Marine during the Gulf War and served in Somalia. He received a bad conduct discharge for abusing drugs and alcohol. His wife, Molly, helped him turn his life around. (Quil Lawrence/NPR)

Michael Hartnett was a Marine during the Gulf War and served in Somalia. He received a bad conduct discharge for abusing drugs and alcohol. His wife, Molly, helped him turn his life around. (Quil Lawrence/NPR)

This week, NPR’s Quil Lawrence has been reporting on veterans who served their country, but for one reason or another, received an other-than-honorable discharge.

This label has affected more than 100,000 in the last decade. Some were discharged for misconduct, others for drug use, and some for committing crimes. As a result, they no longer receive VA health benefits.

He joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti to discuss the special project.

Guest

Transcript

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:

This is HERE AND NOW.

This week, NPR's Quil Lawrence has been reporting on military personnel who have received what's called an other-than-honorable discharge. Now, in the past 10 years, more than 100,000 men and women have been discharged from military service with this label. And as a result, they are not eligible to receive benefits from the Veterans Administration. Quil Lawrence covers veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan for NPR and he joins us now. Hi there, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hi.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Quil, let's start by just giving us a definition of what falls under the category of less than honorable. How does a veteran get that label?

LAWRENCE: Well, most everyone you know gets out of the military has an honorable discharge. That's the most common one. Then there are general discharges for things like a medical condition condition. But then below that, there are these so-called bad discharges. People call them bad paper. An other than honorable discharge is an administrative discharge where your command can essentially kick you out. You sign off on it and say in lieu of court martial, et cetera. It can be for something like failing a drug test, lapses in military good order and discipline. Below that, there's a bad conduct discharge, which is for pretty serious crimes. And then the worse, really, is a dishonorable discharge, which is reserved for things like treason and spying.

CHAKRABARTI: So various levels here, but does this type of discharge stay with the veteran forever?

LAWRENCE: Yes, to some extent. I mean, it's kind of a scarlet letter. We talked with one Marine veteran for this series, whose story aired Wednesday on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And he had been in this sort of a haze of PTSD, and he'd been treating it himself with drugs and alcohol, as many of these veterans say they end up doing. And he didn't really wake up from it until he heard the court martial say bad conduct discharge.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

MICHAEL HARTNETT: When he said that, my knees buckled. It's a weird feeling. You ever have your knees buckle? Like when you get this word, you just - and there was a table in front of me. And I'm so glad it was there because I was able to put my hands. Then I was screwed. You might as well have never even enlisted, that it was worse than being a convicted felon.

LAWRENCE: And when he says that, he means really that on a job application, for example, it's worse than having no military service. If you have military service, they ask you, how'd you get discharged. It's very hard to get a job. You lose all sorts of benefits.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, Quil, does it matter at what time the crime or the infraction was committed?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. There's this incredible distinction, and it can sometimes feel arbitrary. Last year, I spoke with a former soldier, been in Iraq. And at some point, he was having an episode of PTSD and actually ended up squeezing his own baby and hurting the child. And he ended up before court and then was given a chance to get treatment instead of jail time. But that's because he was already out of the military with an honorable discharge.

We profiled someone this week for our series, Reed Holway, up in New Hampshire, and he's a former soldier in Iraq. He had the same, exact thing happened, PTSD. And he hurt a screaming baby. He ended up with a bad conduct discharge. And right now he gets no benefits. And he and his wife, Kelly, are really trying to make ends meet.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

REED HOLWAY: That's where I am. I don't know, you know, what we should do.

KELLY HOLWAY: There's a right. There's a wrong. And I think that what the military did was wrong. And I do...

HOLWAY: Yeah. But what I did was wrong too. So it's like...

HOLWAY: But you wouldn't have done it had you been properly treated and diagnosed, and this is in writing from the psychiatrist. And I feel like Reid did right by his country, and it's time that they do right by him. And I feel like he deserves benefits from disabilities that he received directly from his service.

CHAKRABARTI: Quil, I was really taken by what Kelly says about, he did right by his country and it's now time for his country to do right by him. What about the social contract that the nation has with members of the military?

LAWRENCE: There are two ways to look at it, talking to many of the people I spoke with for this series. One is that an honorable discharge and all the benefits you get with it are earned through good conduct and most people earn them. And people who don't earn it don't get these benefits. The other idea is that maybe, actually, it's something guaranteed. That if you raise your hand and say I'm going to go fight in Iraq, that that at least health care for something that happens to you, like PTSD should be guaranteed.

There are also a lot of myths. People with bad discharges, sometimes they're told that they can get VA benefits and they can't. We spoke with one fellow who had been working on airplanes for Special Forces for several years. He says he got addicted to pain medication he was taking for a knee injury, and he's suicidal. And he went down to the VA thinking they wouldn't be able to turn him away.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

ERIC HIGHFILL: And then I repeated myself. In my mental condition, you guys can turn me away? I'm under the impression that you can't. And he said, Congress does not recognize you as a veteran. Goodbye.

LAWRENCE: That was Eric Highfill in Michigan. I should add that the VA says that they will never turn anyone away for urgent care. They have a record of Eric Highfill's visit. They said they gave him info on how he could possibly change his discharge. But the law, as it is, essentially says that he doesn't qualify for VA.

CHAKRABARTI: Is the military now taking a closer look at this? Because in certain cases where it was the actual service and the PTSD that might have caused the bad behavior, I mean, it seems as if, perhaps, those veterans should be given some sort of exemption. I mean, are they considering that?

LAWRENCE: I didn't get any indication that the military is interested in changing the system. The Pentagon declined a request for an interview. They did give us some statistical information, some help with that. We - we're at an event where the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, was asked a question about this and he said, basically, there is a system to upgrade it. And that is true. You can appeal to have certain kinds of discharges, upgraded. It's advisable to get a lawyer to do that. It takes a long time.

Now, the VA also has its own system. So if you go down to the VA with a bad discharge, they will do their own evaluation of your character of service. And it's possible you can go in there with one of these administrative discharges and they will evaluate it. And for their purposes, they'll say the majority of your service was characterized as honorable, we can serve you.

CHAKRABARTI: And finally, Quil, you said a little earlier that receiving a less than honorable discharge is like receiving a scarlet letter. I can only imagine how difficult that is for people to talk about. So I'm wondering how you got these veterans and their family members to open up to you.

LAWRENCE: Yeah. I mean, this is one of the hardest stories I've ever had, in terms of finding sources, because these are a small percentage of people who get out of the military. Although, in a raw number, it gets to be pretty big. But they don't exactly advertise themselves. These people don't ever tell anyone that they were over there. A lot people have spoke with me and then said that they didn't want their story broadcasted. They didn't think it was going to necessarily help them. And there's just a lot of shame associated with it.

CHAKRABARTI: Quil Lawrence covers veterans for NPR. Quil, thank you so much.

LAWRENCE: It was my pleasure.

CHAKRABARTI: You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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