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New settlement may impact thousands of veterans with other than honorable discharges

A recent settlement with the Navy and Marines may help thousands of veterans with less than honorable discharges. Right now they can be denied Veterans Affairs benefits and face homelessness.

Thousands of veterans have been kicked out of the military for misconduct. Even though many of them can document they had post-traumatic stress disorder or a brain injury or even sexual trauma from their time in the service, says Brandon Baum, an attorney with the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale.

“We've been dealing with the fallout of the Iraq and Afghanistan war in terms of mental health for almost two decades now,” he said. “I think we've made some progress, but that progress has not been nearly enough and I think we hope that our settlement achieved here is something that will help.”

Yale recently won a class-action lawsuit against the Navy and Marine Corps, which is intended to make it easier for service members who suffer from the hidden wounds of war, to upgrade their discharge.

“Around 15% of veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have less than honorable discharges and that number is more than double the rate from Vietnam,” he said.

The price of other than honorable discharges can last a lifetime. Depending on their status, they are denied a wide range of veterans benefits, from healthcare to burial services. Their status makes it hard to get a job, said Bob Muth with Veterans Legal Clinic at the University of San Diego.

“A lot of our clients when they come to us, they might be experiencing homelessness,” Muth said. “They might be living out of their car or truck, living on the street. A lot of times we might get referrals from homeless shelters, saying this is a person who served their country in the military who is clearly dealing with a mental health issue.”

The Navy and Marines have been particularly harsh, despite changes in federal law that require each service to consider the wounds of war, when judging whether to upgrade someone’s discharge. Muth says the denials target a person's self-worth.

“This is a person who is essentially being branded for life as less than fully honorable,” he said. “We have clients who come to us, who have been decorated for valor in combat and they’re now walking around with a discharge that says they’re somehow less than honorable.”

The settlement will impact potentially thousands of veterans in San Diego. The Yale class action suit will require the Navy to automatically review cases dating back to 2012, which were previously denied. It will also change the process so veterans can speak directly to the board hearing their case via video conference. Under the old system, they have to fly to Washington to be heard.

“Those veterans who actually have been able to appear in person, before the boards, have had a much higher success rate than veterans who have solely done documentary review, which means they just submit evidence and a written application,” Baum said.

Yale won a similar lawsuit against the Army and is about to file another suit against the U.S. Air Force.