New Data Shows Jump in Relief to Veterans with PTSD

Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) and the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress (NVCLR), joined by Senator Richard Blumenthal (CT), held a press conference about a report based on newly disclosed records revealing a dramatic increase in the approvals of discharge upgrade applications from veterans with less than honorable discharges due to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Watch a video of the press conference.

The information in the report comes from a federal lawsuit filed in May 2015 by VVA and NVCLR against the Department of Defense after it failed to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School represents the plaintiffs in this matter.

The report shows that since former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel issued a directive in 2014 requiring the military’s Boards give “liberal consideration” to PTSD claims, the Army has granted 67% of discharge upgrade applications from veterans with a PTSD diagnosis, far above the 4.5% approval rate for Vietnam veterans with PTSD in the prior two decades.

The number of Army PTSD-based discharge upgrade decisions has increased from approximately 30 decisions per year to about 200 since Secretary Hagel’s directive.  Still, tens of thousands of eligible veterans have not yet applied to the Boards for relief, according to the report. More than 260,000 veterans left Vietnam with bad paper discharges, and a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs study indicates that 30% of Vietnam veterans have suffered from PTSD. The report attributes the low numbers to DOD’s failure to conduct outreach and identify eligible veterans, as mandated by the directive. 

Even after the directive, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records did not grant a single application asserting PTSD that lacked an official diagnosis, according to the report. This pattern is particularly problematic for Vietnam-era veterans, whose service records do not include PTSD diagnoses because PTSD was not a recognized medical diagnosis until 1980. Veterans with bad paper discharges are also generally ineligible for VA healthcare and thus may lack access to the care necessary to receive a diagnosis.

“Veterans with mental illness and without access to health care continue to fall through the cracks,” said Emma Larson ’17, a law student intern in the Veterans Legal Services Clinic.  “Critical next steps to fix the Boards include adding mental health professionals and allowing the Boards to refer applicants for a mental health diagnosis. These changes would help ensure that no veteran gets left behind.”

“The initiative announced last year was a first step toward correcting a tragic injustice—an unmerited black mark on the records of thousands of brave and honorable veterans suffering from the invisible wounds of war, and wounded again by less than honorable discharges,” said Senator Blumenthal. “I remain troubled by the limited number of applications, a sign that too few veterans know and understand the policy. I urge DoD to follow through immediately on their promise to conduct a thorough and comprehensive outreach campaign.”

“We are heartened to see that Secretary Hagel’s directive has resulted in more discharge upgrades for members of the armed forces,” said Garry Monk, co-founder of the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress (NVCLR). “But we don’t have a comprehensive view of what all the Boards are doing because the Navy and the Air Force provided no documents as a result of our lawsuit.  Going forward, all Boards should be required to produce regular information on the types and numbers of determinations made so that the public can continue to hold these boards accountable for their actions.”

“It took a directive from the Secretary of Defense for the Army Board to treat veterans with PTSD fairly,” said John Rowan, the President of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). “But we still don’t know what the Navy and Air Force boards are doing. We also worry that the veterans with other service-related mental health conditions are getting the cursory, unfair treatment at all the boards that vets diagnosed with PTSD received before the Hagel directive.  This is why mental health professionals need to participate in the review process.”
About Vietnam Veterans of America: 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.

About the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress: 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.