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Discharge status restricts veterans' benefits

Veterans are entitled to disability compensation, long-term medical care and other benefits and services. However, the Swords to Plowshares organization and Harvard Law School's Veterans Legal Clinic recently reported that bad paper discharges have excluded former service members from receiving benefits at a higher rate than any other time.

These discharges are classified as being other than honorable, bad conduct and dishonorable. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has made this a notorious veterans' issue because it is excluding these veterans at a rate that is double the rate for veterans from the Vietnam era and almost four times the rate for World War II era veterans.

The VA's policies, according to the report, have had a substantial impact on veterans who need support because they are more likely to have mental illness issues, suffer homelessness problems and had run-ins with the criminal justice system. They are twice as likely to commit suicide.

The report claims that the VA has implemented policies that conflict with the law. Congress passed legislation in 1944 to simplify and expand benefits so that returning service personnel would receive support with their rehabilitation and return to civilian life. It granted eligibility for basic services to veterans who were discharged for some misconduct if it was not grounds for court-martial trial and dishonorable discharge.

The VA's regulations do not properly reflect in-service mental health conditions and generally do not consider whether the misconduct is outweighed by meritorious service, such as combat, or earned medals or awards. The VA does not consider mitigating circumstances, hardships or extenuating circumstances. Policies differ among regional offices and apply inconsistently to the different military branches.

Over 125,000 veterans who served since 2001 did not receive access to basic services even though no evaluation was conducted of their military service. The VA, in 2013, classified 90 percent of veterans with bad paper discharges as dishonorable although they were not dishonorably discharged.

The report recommends that the VA revise its regulations to only exclude veterans whose misconduct was grounds for trial by court-martial and dishonorable discharge. Positive and mitigating factors should be considered and minor misconduct should not disqualify veterans. It should allow access to basic healthcare until there is an eligibility determination.

Source: Harvard Law School's Veterans Legal Clinic, "Undeserved-How the VA wrongfully excludes veterans with bad paper," Accessed April 10, 2015

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