Agustin Cabrera was among the first combat troops to fight in the Iraq War when President George W. Bush sent troops there in early 2003.
But with exploding grenades a regular threat during convoys and near the prison camp where he was stationed, Cabrera said he soon found himself beset by combat anxieties he couldn’t control. The Massapequa resident was written up in Iraq for snapping at superiors.
Back stateside at his post with the 46th Engineer Combat Battalion at Fort Polk, Louisiana, further run-ins with authorities led to proceedings against him, he said. Threatened with a court-martial, Cabrera said he accepted a dismissal that stripped him of rank and branded his discharge as “under other than honorable conditions.”
Veterans’ advocates say tens of thousands of U.S. troops, who like Cabrera say they were forced out of the military under similar circumstances, are being unfairly denied federally funded psychological and other services that could help them cope with the war-related problems that led to their dismissal.
They say as many as 100,000 living veterans were discharged based on conduct related to post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury — psychological issues that mostly went unacknowledged by military leaders even after the nation’s newest warriors began coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kristofer Goldsmith, 30, a former Iraq War sergeant from Bellmore, is backing legislation that would make it easier for veterans to have their discharge status upgraded — wiping away prejudicial records that hamper their return to society.
Last month, he and four other veterans met with congressional leaders or their staff to urge passage of SB 1567. The bill, introduced last June by Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), would require Defense Department panels that evaluate a veteran’s request to prove that PTSD or traumatic brain injury were not the reason for the veteran’s discharge.
The proposed legislation is gaining support in Congress, including from members of Long Island’s delegation.
“It’s not fair to them to ask them to fight for our freedoms and then turn our backs when they come home troubled by their combat experiences,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City). Rice, who sits on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, is one of several area lawmakers who met with Goldsmith and the others.
“I think we owe it to these men and women to help them,” she said.
Veterans’ advocates say military leaders often use bad paper discharges to get rid of service members with combat-related psychological issues, rather than help them get healthy.
They say success rates before review boards have varied greatly with each branch of service. As of 2013, Army boards were granting appeals about 40 percent of the time, but Navy and Marine Corps boards were doing so in less than 5 percent of cases, according to the Fitzgerald Law Firm, a Wisconsin practice that handles reviews.
And they also say that while a September 2014 directive by then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has made it easier to win discharge upgrades, it has been applied inconsistently.
“There is a coming tsunami of . . . veterans who have been wrongly discharged for conduct that was, in fact, PTSD-related at a time when PTSD was not well understood,” said Ken Rosenblum, a former Army lawyer who served in Vietnam and directs a veterans legal clinic at Touro Law Center.
Pentagon spokesman Maj. Benjamin Sakrisson said upgrade petitions are evaluated on their merits, receive “substantial due process” and can be strengthened by documentation of psychological difficulty. He said the “vast majority” of service members with PTSD leave with honorable discharges.
Goldsmith, 30, said that in spring 2007, after a bloody combat tour in which he repeatedly witnessed deaths of Iraqi civilians, he was told his military release date would be involuntarily extended for a year and he’d be sent back to Iraq.
The day before his unit left, Goldsmith combined pills and alcohol in a suicide attempt. Accused of malingering, he was dismissed with a “general (under honorable conditions)” discharge.
Goldsmith said his discharge, which includes the notation “misconduct, serious offense,” has been a red flag for prospective employers.
He said doctors at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center at Northport have since diagnosed him as having combat-related PTSD.
But he said he has been unable to persuade the military to view his psychological condition as a cause of his suicidal behavior and upgrade his discharge status to “honorable.”
Unless modified, discharge classifications follow veterans for the rest of their lives, affecting their ability to find jobs, finance housing, get medical care, pay for school or even to re-enlist.
Veterans with honorable discharges are entitled to the full range of veterans’ benefits, including lifetime medical care for service-connected disabilities or illnesses, various educational and housing benefits, and burials at national cemeteries.
However, veterans with “general under honorable conditions” discharges, which mark them as having been guilty of minor misconduct while in the service, forfeit GI Bill education benefits that can be worth tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and housing expenses.
Veterans with an “under other than honorable conditions” discharge are deemed to have been guilty of acts of insubordination, violence, drug abuse or other infractions and are stripped of all rank. They are generally denied all benefits, although the Department of Veterans Affairs can consider appeals for medical care on a case-by-case basis.
Veterans discharged under “general” or “other than honorable” conditions may appeal to a discharge review board to have the characterization of their discharge upgraded, a Pentagon spokesman said. If the discharge was more than 15 years ago, or if the veteran’s appeal was denied, the veteran may appeal to a board for correction of military records. Upgrades may be granted when a veteran has demonstrated an “error or injustice” in his/her records that warrants a change in the discharge characterization.
“Bad conduct,” “dishonorable,” and “dismissal” discharges are issued to service members convicted in a court-martial and typically bar the recipient from any military or VA benefits. These discharges may only be upgraded by review boards on the basis of clemency.
Because military commanders have wide latitude in handling such infractions as drug use, drunken driving or failing to show up for duty, the same violation may be reflected quite differently on discharge papers.
“The same action, four different outcomes; it happens every day,” said Bradford Adams, a staff attorney for Swords to Plowshares, a veterans’ advocacy group based in San Francisco. “There is too much discretion given to commanders for discharge status to be a reliable indicator of how a veteran served. But the stigma follows him for life.”
Cabrera, 34, a communications major at Nassau Community College, said his discharge stemmed from then-undiagnosed PTSD, which left him angry and depressed during and after his deployment to Iraq.
Discharged without treatment in 2004 and denied psychological services by Veterans Affairs, Cabrera said he struggled in his relationship with his fiancee, who had given birth to their first child while he was in Iraq. He also was hobbled financially because his discharge papers scared off prospective employers, limiting him to minimum-wage jobs.
Hopes of improving his prospects with a college diploma were set back by his discharge-related ineligibility for GI Bill education benefits.
Cabrera said he hopes the proposed legislation will force the military to consider his service-related PTSD as a contributing factor to his disciplinary problems and upgrade his discharge status to honorable.
“I’m proud of my service, and I’d do it again if I had to,” he said. “But they need to know that to go through something like that, you don’t always come back the same way. They need to find ways to help soldiers deal with what they went through, and not just get rid of them.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article omitted some avenues veterans who did not receive an honorable discharge may seek to improve their military records.