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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.





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.


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.


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.


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.


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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  • 25o6tofar

    I like to comment on the “other than honorable discharge” I was active army from 1974-77. I loved the Army it was going to be my life. After Boot camp and AIT training I was ordered to South Korea Camp Gary Owen 4miles or so from DMZ. I was promoted to e-4 and received the Injim Scout Award. I was there that day the men were beheaded. My compound was next door to the pharmacy. We were told we had life expectency of 3min, if the…hit the fan. Long story short, did my tour came back addictted to codine. My next orders were for Fort Hood.1977 i was not offered are was I informed of treatment for coming back from high stress DMZ. The Army was turning heads and did not want to face drug addiction in the enlisted men. I was awol for 2wks….the reported back for duty. What happened then was my company had shipped to Germany. I was SOL and sign if you want out of the Army…I had no where to turn I needed help and that was what they offered.

  • ItsNotOver

    Well, I just wanted to add to the topic. My story; Given a BCD…. upgraded to OTH. I was placed on terminal left pending dischange – so I was still active duty. I had a plan and that plan was to find me a decent job as I was still active duty since my dischange was not completed and I knew it would be at least a year before they mailed me my DD214.
    The point is this, I worked in the field the military trained me for while I went to school full time on a Pell grant. I got my Associate Degree while working in Computers and worked 8 years at the same place to include the 2 years after getting out. I also got my Bachelor’s degree and than a Top Secret clearance.
    You don’t have to claim military on your application because they do that to give you points for government work. Don’t sit there and have a pity party – put the discharge behind you as their are other ways you can get ahead. I have friends who are still in the military (E-8 LEVEL) and I’ve out earned them since I got out.
    Heck, I’ll tell you this also, I just landed another job making $80,000 a year which will allow me to move within the company – they are huge and it’s super easy (But I like what I do and I’m smart). Lastly, some of you might think I’m making this up so believe what you want. I’m setting at my desk at a cleared site chilling :-)…Don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t make it with a less then ho norable discharge (I have).
    Sure, it’s a hard pill to swallow at first because of what THEY say – to be honest, my military lawyer (dirt bag) said I was a felon, IT would be hard to get a job. I bet if he know that I had a Top Secret clearance and working in the same military branch that kicked me out he would feel like a complete ass for talking out the side of his neck. I look at where I’m at and I’m not doing bad; 2 jobs (I really only need one but I shooting for debt free living) and it’s all due to the Lord GOD Almight. KEEP it positve and be honest. You can do it…. I did.

    • linda555555

      Wish You could help my son get good job. He got oth dirty ua for weed he tried to get out for me I became bed ridden my daughter abandeon me I had no one but him (also only son I guess don’t mean nothing either?) We got Drs letters all what they said etc. & they destroyed them I guess. We didn’t give them copies. I’m sure he smoked weed to get out for me he’s been depressed since. He has a job just not what he wants to do (dry wall) in florida heat. I’m glad you doing good, I’m looking into upgrading to general but the truth is it seems a lot of time & money which we don’t have. Also a navy site said last 3 years many applied for that & not ONE made it. He was hoping to get va house loan for me he’s stuck taking care of me which I hate i want to stay in florida due to being in wheelchair he needs to be w/friends in michigan.I can’t afford rent alone so it’s a mess trying to get low income housing where I live is 2 yrs waiting list I hear. He don’t even realize he can’t get the loan, His girlfriend just broke up w/him too, so much seems to happen to the good hearted.

  • bernardo hidalgo

    i was discharge we and oth but they dint guive me a general o medical and i broke my knee in active duty only received phisical teraphi can i still sue the goverment for this i have all the evidence and medical records.can i regain my honorable and be compensated for all those mistakes they made and regain my medical benefits

  • vetrans wife

    Those who fight for our freedom are disrespected by our so called goverment. anyone who gives there life for our country should not be treated as they are.when they come home to there own country.

  • Rudnick David

    having a Misconduct Discharge back on the East Coast was hard. But out here on the Left Coast and in California it is much easier to get work as well as loans. People are not judged on their past (no matter what political angle you may look at a veteran’s discharge).
    In an era of absolute corruption not all were complicit and I am proudly dishonorable. I have had many offers to change my discharge and despite chronic health problems, I refuse. I’m free and do not want anything to do with that kind of life or so called “benefits.”


    I am 59 now I got a o,t,h, in 79 I was I the army with a 6th, grade education , I made it to E5, I was having pain in my chest , I told them over and over, no help , I got help with , writing this , I went awl, and then ded not no what to do , so I went back , and got no help with what was going on , a,w,l again , lived in the streets , I did get one good discharge , but when I went back again , so this time , I got the , o t,h. , I lived on the streets a long time, , I got a job this lod man god bless hem help me , I had a good record , I was just put out with out help at , with a very good record, now I like to get it honorable , like the first one I got, but ,that’s out , I have had a triple bypass , I have a thing no in my chest called a defibalator . got no help at all from the army and I liked army, I just needed some help .I am to old now so be it , on S,S,I. SORRY I HAD NO SCHOOLING ,HAD TO GO TO WORK AT 13 , AND THIN GOT IN THE ARMY, . I MADE IT TO , E5 ,

  • zac

    My dad serve for 15 years. He was a A-O E6 he got other then and its because he popped a bad ua under presure. He has seen the good and really bad. 15 years with out one bad thing on him. He feels like they turned there back to him. I know he has ptsd but he doesnt want to say he has it. Can he recive anything at all? Thats my question.

  • Leftbehind

    My stories a little different. I recivied an OTH because upon PCSing my family to our new base house in Hawaii we invited our neighbors to our daughters 5th birthday party. Not realizing, at the time my wife didn’t ask their rank, that they were lower ranking. I only find out later they were E2 and I being an E5 isn’t allowed. So I was put on a board and given an OTH for fraternization. After serving for 12 years this is what I got for inviting people over for a birthday party…Not drugs, not violence but a party… The military has gone to hell.

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