“Bad Paper” can follow veterans discharged under an “Other Than Honorable” status for decades, preventing them from benefiting from the educational opportunities they were promised upon enlistment, disqualifying them from Veterans Affairs healthcare services, and making life as a civilian much more difficult.
A study recently released by the VA reveals that, since the early 1980s, hundreds of thousands of veterans may have been unfairly denied medical services because of “bad paper,” stifling their quality of life and possibly driving many to suicide.
The study, titled “Turned Away: How VA Unlawfully Denies Health Care to Veterans with Bad Paper Discharges,” compiled by the Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School, indicates that VA staff commonly misinterpreted laws that determine who is eligible for medical services, often turning away anyone with “bad paper,” regardless of their legal status. An OTH discharge can decrease a veteran’s chances of receiving care, but the department is required to accept all applications, making a determination based on each specific case, rather than categorically denying them because of a ticked box.
“Every veteran—regardless of discharge status—has the right to apply to VA for health
care,” reports the study. “Every veteran has the right to receive a written decision on his or her application and information on how to appeal any denial.”
According to the Washington Post, veterans who do not receive care from the VA system are at a much higher risk of suicide than those who do.
Doctors and advocates for veteran mental health have been pressing the VA to extend care to this demographic for years. In many cases, it’s the only lifeline these veterans may have.
“I was supposed to be able to turn to them,” Dwayne Smith, a Marine Corps veteran who served in Afghanistan, told the Washington Post.
When Smith came home from war, he brought a few things with him, both which haunted his life as a civilian. An unauthorized trip home to visit his mother, then dying of cancer, prompted Smith’s superiors to push him toward an early release under an OTH discharge, rather than facing a possible dishonorable discharge when brought up on charges. Like many of his colleagues. Smith also carried the invisible scars of post-traumatic stress.
Smith’s dreams of a happy retirement from the military, if he had any, were dashed days after his return when his best friend died in his sleep.
Sick from the pressures of PTSD, Smith attempted getting help from the VA in Brockton, MA. A VA staffer saw his OTH status and turned him away without consideration. His visit was documented. His benefits were denied.
The same thing happened each time his visited the VA over the course of the following two years.
“Less-than-honorable discharges, used to oust gay troops until the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” are given for a variety of behaviors attributable to PTSD, including self-medication—as I experienced,” wrote Tyson Manker, a veteran who initiated a lawsuit against the U.S. Navy in a fight to restore his benefits after an “OTH” discharge. “Most outrageous is when rape victims are punished with bad paper for reporting their assaults. Or the fact that right now black service members are ‘substantially more likely than white service members to face military justice or disciplinary action.’ Bad-paper discharges continue to punish veterans for the remainder of their lives—an objectively disproportionate penalty.”
Blanket denial policies like this, though illegal, have been implemented by various VA facilities throughout the U.S. since at least 1980. Only since 2017 has the VA attempted to reach out to those veterans who may have fallen through the cracks.
While an effort may have been made, many veterans were seemingly unaware. According to the VA, 444,487 letters were sent in 2017 to veterans with OTH discharges, explaining the mental-health care services they are eligible for, but the letters were sent to addresses that had not ben updated for decades.
Only 2,580 of those veterans received were treated at VA facilities in the following 12 months.
“That is horrifically low by any measure,” said Kris Goldsmith, the associate director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America. “It shows how unserious VA’s leadership is in getting these guys and gals into the system.”
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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.