Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed military review boards Wednesday to give "liberal consideration" to diagnoses of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in veterans’ petitions for upgrades of their discharges.
Hagel said the guidance would mainly apply to Vietnam veterans who served at a time when "PTSD was not recognized as a diagnosis," and "in many cases diagnoses were not made until decades after service was completed."
Hagel’s memo to the Boards for Correction of Military/Naval Records (BCM/NR) directed them to "fully and carefully consider every petition based on PTSD brought by each veteran."
For veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the military services must give a medical evaluation to any service member who claims to have PTSD before approving an "other-than-honorable" discharge. The procedure did not exist during the Vietnam War.
The Hagel memo covered veterans of all wars but was expected to affect upgrades mostly for Vietnam veterans, a Pentagon official said. The official said there was no initial estimate on how many upgrades of bad conduct, general, or dishonorable discharges would be impacted by a PTSD diagnosis.
The upgrades could result in reversals of decisions by the Veterans Affairs Department to deny benefits such as disability pay, separation pay or GI Bill benefits that may have resulted from discharges under “less-than-honorable” conditions.
Hagel said his guidance was “intended to ease the application process for veterans who are seeking redress and assist the boards in reaching fair and consistent results.”
The initial reaction of veterans service organizations was positive.
"We think it’s a good decision" by Hagel, said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars that has tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans as members.
Last March, five Vietnam vets filed suit in Connecticut naming the service secretaries and charging that they received less-than-honorable discharges for actions that resulted PTSD.
The federal lawsuit sought class action status for what it estimates are tens of thousands of veterans who can now be shown to suffer from PTSD.
"The military gave these service members other than honorable discharges based on poor conduct such as unauthorized absence without leave, shirking, using drugs, or lashing out at comrades or superior officers," the lawsuit said.
"These behaviors, however, are typical of those who have recently experienced trauma and were symptoms of the veterans' underlying, undiagnosed PTSD,” the lawsuit said.
In November 2013, the Army settled a lawsuit brought by John Shepherd, Jr., a 67-year-old Vietnam vet, by giving him an upgrade to an honorable discharge. The lawsuit was filed on Shepherd’s behalf by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School.
Shepherd said he was not diagnosed with PTSD until 2004, and "there are thousands of guys like me who also deserve better from the DoD. Their fight is still going," the Associated Press reported.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org