Recent investigations show that the Department of Defense has issued thousands of other-than-honorable discharges to veterans with mental health and behavioral health diagnoses.
U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal and seven other senators introduced legislation to change that.
On April 3, Murphy, veterans, and advocates for veterans held a press conference in Connecticut and called upon Congress to take action.
"I can't stand the idea of a veteran risking her or his life for this country, suffering the wounds of battle, and then being kicked to the curb as a result of those wounds," Murphy said. "But that is exactly what has happened to tens of thousands of men and women who have fought and bled for our country."
"This is common sense," Murphy added. "We are breaking our promise to those who served."
In 2014, 6 of the 20 veterans per day committing suicide were users of VA services.
Murphy said there is also a stigma that comes with an other-than-honorable discharge that is a heavy burden for veterans to live with. "A lot of these so-called offenses are very minor," Murphy said.
The legislation Murphy helped introduce would require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to provide mental health and behavioral health services to diagnosed former combat veterans who have been other-than-honorably discharged. The bill would also ensure that veterans receive a decision in a timely manner and requires the VA to justify to Congress any denial of benefits that they issue to a veteran.
Up until recently, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Murphy said, denied it had the legal authority to provide any care to former combat veterans who received OTH or Bad Paper discharges.
The VA has reversed course on the matter, Murphy said, adding that now it's time for Congress to act to ensure mental health and behavioral health services are provided to these veterans.
Since January 2009, the Army has "separated" at least 22,000 soldiers for misconduct after they came back from Iraq and Afghanistan, said Murphy.
"These soldiers who fought for our country suffered serious mental health problems or traumatic brain injury as a cost of their service. And we turned our back on them," Murphy said, adding that they also return home from combat with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
But instead of being directed to the care and treatment they need, they're being given other-than-honorable discharges or so-called "bad paper discharges," disqualifying them from VA care, especially the mental and behavioral health services many of them desperately need, said the senator.
Murphy's strong support for the bill was echoed by Blumenthal, who is a sponsor but was not at Monday's press conference.
"This bill will make crystal clear that all combat veterans should have access to the full array of mental and behavioral health care they need and deserve," Blumenthal said. "We cannot wait for a crisis to provide essential mental health to veterans suffering from the terrible invisible wounds of war."
He said 20 veterans per day are lost to suicide.
Chiefs and chief selects do pushups for the 22Kill Challenge aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77). 22Kill is a veterans' advocacy group that brings awareness to the daily veterans' suicide rate. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Tristan Lotz/Released)
One of those in attendance at the press conference Monday was Conley Monk, a Vietnam veteran from New Haven who developed PTSD as a result of his military service.
In 2014, Monk and four other plaintiffs brought a class action lawsuit because they were issued OTH discharges. They won the suit, which was brought on their behalf by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School and the Pentagon agreed to upgrade their discharges to honorable.
Another veteran to speak Monday was was Tom Burke, president of the Yale Student Veterans Council and a U.S. Marine corps veteran.
In 2009, Burke was a Marine infantryman in Afghanistan.
It was when he was in the Helmand Province that he witnessed deaths of many young children who were killed by an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade. One of Burke's responsibilities was to cart away the dismembered bodies.
"I began smoking hash," Burke said, adding that in a matter of weeks he was charged for misconduct for his drug use and was told he would be kicked out of the Marines.
Burke said he "tried to commit suicide a few times."
He said he was later locked in a psychiatric hospital and subsequently given an OTH discharge later in 2009.
In 2014, Burke said he applied for an honorable discharge, but was denied.
Burke tells his story often, these days, not to elicit empathy for his own case, but to try and draw attention to the bigger issue of the thousands like him who are being denied benefits.
"Veterans are dying," Burke said. "These aren't men and women who are trying to take advantage of the system."
Margaret Middleton, executive director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, said veterans need relief.
Under the current system, a veteran trying to get an honorable discharge often "requires the expertise and cost of an attorney and lengthy research," something that veterans returning from combat shouldn't be forced to endure, she said.
Murphy concluded: "Our veterans made a commitment to our country when they signed up. I introduced this legislation to make sure that the VA keeps its commitment to help veterans with mental and behavioral health issues. I won't stop fighting until they get the care and benefits they deserve."