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Navy, Marine Corps vets with mental illnesses sue over discharges

"It is a national disgrace," says the lead plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against the Navy. The lawsuit accuses the service of giving less-than-honorable discharges to Navy and Marine Corps veterans due to minor infractions engendered by service-related disabilities. The plaintiffs have traumatic brain injuries, PTSD and other mental illnesses brought on by service trauma. The less-than-honorable discharges strip them of the very VA benefits they need to recover from those conditions.

The class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of thousands of Navy and Marine Corps vets by the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic. Last year, the group filed a similar suit against the Army.

Discharges often based on minor misconduct related to a service disability

The military acknowledges that many troops with brain injuries and PTSD have been kicked out of the service due to minor misconduct. Often, that misconduct is related to, or the direct result of, the disability. For example, the lead plaintiff was given a less-than-honorable discharge because he tried smoking marijuana to deal with his PTSD.

Navy board accused of rubber-stamping discharge decisions

Last year, the Naval Discharge Review Board, which rules on such upgrade requests for the Navy and Marines, approved 16 percent of upgrade requests related to PTSD. By contrast, the Army approved 55 percent.

"It seems like the board doesn't even look at the issues," the lead plaintiff said of the Navy's board. "They just say no."

The discharge review boards are meant to ensure that discharge decisions are objectively fair. However, they are given only a few minutes to review each case, according to a former undersecretary who oversaw the Army's board during the Obama administration.

The calls are not necessarily easy. When a vet with a service-related mental illness acts out, they may indeed commit a dischargeable offense.

"How do you determine how PTSD affected an action, which might also be due just to, well, being a bad soldier?" commented the former undersecretary.

The answer may be simply to defer to the service member's diagnosis, absent evidence that the misconduct was intentional.

Nevertheless, the Navy board has been denying discharge upgrades even to veterans with well-documented PTSD diagnoses who were discharged based on a single, relatively minor instance of misconduct.

"So many guys and girls are in the same situation," said the lead plaintiff. "They feel betrayed, forgotten and they don't know what to do."

Certain mental conditions can make the sufferer engage in activities that would otherwise be considered misconduct. When these activities are undertaken by someone suffering a diagnosed mental disorder, it can indeed be hard to separate the issues. It can be difficult, but more than a rubber stamp is required.

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