Clinic Files Lawsuit for Records About Discharge of Veterans with PTSD

Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) and the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress (NVCLR) filed suit against the Department of Defense and the Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force to compel the release of records regarding their discharge of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on May 4. The lawsuit was filed by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It seeks to shed light on how the military adjudicates applications filed by veterans with PTSD who received an other-than-honorable or other bad discharge and who later seek to have their discharge upgraded.

The plaintiffs in this case are represented by law student interns Elizabeth Dervan ’17, Kathryn Jones ’16, Virginia McCalmont ’15, Rebecca Ojserkis ’17, Julia Shu ’16, and supervising attorneys Jonathan Manes and Michael Wishnie of the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic.

On September 3, 2014, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered the military administrative boards established by Congress to review discharges of service members to give “liberal consideration” to applications from veterans with PTSD. Many veterans have suffered from PTSD without adequate recognition or support for their combat-related injury, according to the lawsuit. This is particularly true for Vietnam-era veterans, as PTSD was not a recognized medical diagnosis until 1980. As a result, thousands of these veterans received other-than-honorable discharges because of misconduct attributable to their undiagnosed PTSD.

“We welcome Secretary Hagel’s September 2014 directive,” said John Rowan, VVA National President. “Still, we are concerned the relevant administrative boards are not fairly implementing that instruction. These veterans have waited decades for the benefits they deserve and for the recognition that they suffered a combat injury.”

Veterans with bad paper discharges are generally ineligible for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) benefits and frequently confront barriers to employment and the shame and stigma of a bad discharge. After World War II, Congress established administrative boards to correct discharge errors after the fact. Yet for years these boards have denied discharge upgrade applications from veterans with PTSD on a near-categorical basis, according to the suit.

“In violation of FOIA, the military has failed to produce records within the statutory time limit,” said Virginia McCalmont ’15, a law student intern in the Veterans Legal Services. “Veterans like Conley Monk have been waiting for decades to receive fair consideration of their applications to the military boards. They, and the public, deserve to know now whether Hagel’s memo has made a difference in how the boards are treating veterans with PTSD.”

“We were so happy that Secretary Hagel finally took the plight of veterans like me seriously,” said Conley Monk, co-founder of NVCLR and one of the named plaintiffs in the Monk v. Mabus, a proposed nation-wide class-action lawsuit filed against DOD in March 2014 on behalf of Vietnam veterans with an other-than-honorable discharge and PTSD. “But we need to make sure the Memo is more than just words on a page. My other-than-honorable discharge has been a heavy burden since I returned home over 40 years ago. Veterans like me need to know that the military boards take our discharge upgrade applications seriously.”

To assess whether the military boards are properly implementing Secretary Hagel’s directive, last December VVA and NVCLR submitted FOIA requests to DOD, the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force to acquire records describing how each military agency reviewed upgrade applications before and after Secretary Hagel’s order.

“We believe this FOIA lawsuit is crucial in order to make sure the government is honoring its obligations to veterans now and into the future,” said Garry Monk, Executive Director of NVCLR. “Past board decisions not to upgrade discharges or provide these veterans with minimum healthcare, educational, employment, and housing opportunities have caused veterans severe hardship. It is imperative that these branches implement the new protocol outlined by Secretary Hagel so that these and future generations of veterans receive these greatly needed services.”

Founded in 1978, VVA is the only national Vietnam veterans organization congressionally chartered and exclusively dedicated to Vietnam Era veterans and their families. VVA’s goals are to promote and support the full range of issues important to Vietnam veterans, to create a new identity for this generation of veterans, and to change public perception of Vietnam veterans.

The NVCLR is a Connecticut-based organization committed to providing veterans with social, legal, and technical assistance including help with meals, housing, and benefits. NVCLR is particularly interested in upgrading the discharge statuses of veterans who received less than honorable discharges.

In the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, law students represent individual veterans and their organizations under the supervision of clinical professors. Students engage in litigation before administrative agencies and courts on matters including disability benefits claims, Freedom of Information Act requests, and civil rights lawsuits. In addition, students represent local and national organizations on policy matters relating to the legal needs of veterans.