Veterans whose service-related psychological problems led to less than full honorable military discharges will find it easier to have their records upgraded if representatives from the four major Long Island congressional districts have their way.
The representatives — Democrats Kathleen Rice and Steve Israel, and Republicans Peter King and Lee Zeldin — announced their support for the Fairness for Veterans Act at a Wednesday morning gathering at Eisenhower Park.
Depending on their severity, so-called “bad paper” discharges can deprive veterans of education benefits, health care, government jobs, financial assistance and other benefits designed to help ease the transition from military duty to civilian life.
“It can even prohibit a veteran who has been diagnosed with PTSD from accessing essential mental health treatment within the VA medical system,” said Rice, of Garden City. “It couldn’t have been clearer to me that this was wrong, and we had to make it right.”
The legislation would require the Pentagon to grant the benefit of the doubt to veterans appealing their discharge status if service-related psychological problems contributed to their less-than-honorable discharge. The legislation, HR 4683, was introduced in the House on March 3 by Colorado Republican Mike Coffman. A similar bill is being considered by the Senate.
The Long Island lawmakers credited a former Army sergeant from Bellmore, Kristofer Goldsmith, with bringing the problem to their attention. Goldsmith was dismissed from the Army with a general discharge after he was accused of resisting a second deployment to Iraq in 2007.
Within weeks, he was diagnosed with combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder, but his discharge status stripped him of GI Bill education benefits potentially worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Supporters of the legislation, including Veterans of Foreign Wars and other groups, say as many as 100,000 veterans alive today left the military with less-than-honorable discharges, many because of fighting and other anti-social behaviors resulting from psychological stress. They say bad discharges have cut off veterans from financial resources and emotional support, often sending them into spirals of substance abuse, homelessness and even suicide.
They say it is unfair brand a veteran for the rest of their lives because of psychological problems the military itself failed to identify and treat.
“I’ve actually lost more friends who were veterans through PTSD than I have through combat,” said Zeldin, of Shirley, an Army veteran who served as a military lawyer in Iraq in 2007.
King, of Seaford, said that while a September 2014 directive by then-Secretary Chuck Hagel has made it somewhat easier to win discharge upgrades, that directive could be withdrawn at any time and must be made permanent.
Veterans discharged under less than full honorable conditions have various avenues with which to appeal to the Pentagon to have the status of their discharge upgraded.
But proponents of the legislation say that psychological issues are often overlooked by review boards, forcing veterans to live with the stain of a bad discharge for the rest of their lives because of problems their military service helped create, and which their military leaders failed to identify and treat.
“The honorable thing to do for someone who was dishonorably discharged with PTSD is to give them the benefit of the doubt,” said Israel, of Huntington.