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Give Full VA Medical Benefits to All Veterans with Service Connected PTSD

by Doug Smith, Esq. (lawyer and veteran)

Prior to 1980, soldiers traumatized by the ravages and human carnage of combat were oftentimes labeled as suffering from "exhaustion," being "shell shocked" or having "battle fatigue." Many were considered cowards or malingerers. No better example of this comes from the famous scene in the Academy Award winning movie "Patton", where General Patton, played by George C. Scott, slaps a young soldier and labels him a cry baby after he returns scared and in tears after witnessing horrific combat action. Back then, that 18 year old "coward' had probably proudly enlisted to serve his country, and after being slapped by General Patton was probably sent to the rear, told to "suck it up," or 'get over it" and then either returned to combat or did his remaining service quietly before getting out without getting any help at all. Had he been "in country" 25 or so years later during the Vietnam War, he still got no help, maybe smoked a little "weed" to deal with the combat trauma, but was then discharged for drug use with a less than honorable discharge, and labeled a "baby killer" when he got home.

What changed in 1980? Our society got smart, and our doctors got even smarter with the publication of the Third Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DMS) that formally recognized these symptoms as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Today, too many of these pre-1980 veterans are suffering from the ravages of what we now know was military service related PTSD. Call it whatever you want – combat fatigue, battle fatigue, exhaustion – its PTSD, and it's a recognized and real mental health condition that requires careful and proper treatment and, if untreated, leads to very sad circumstances. From contributing to drug use to loss of a job, to homelessness, to criminal conduct, to jail time, PTSD brings tragedy and sadness to our society and so many families. Productive and enriching lives are wasted and cut short because of it. Indeed, way too many of of these veterans, now in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, have not been properly diagnosed or treated for PTSD and are homeless, out of work, on drugs, in jail, and alone.

Many people are not aware that these veterans oftentimes do not even qualify for VA medical care. Lots have been written about delays in getting veterans needed medical care. But what is overlooked in our society is the large veteran population with combat related PTSD who do not even qualify for VA care. This is because in order for a veteran to qualify for VA medical care, he must have an "honorable" discharge. Not all veterans were fortunate enough to be honorably discharged from the military. Many veterans with symptoms during their military service that we know now as PTSD oftentimes ended up getting into altercations with superiors and others, could not get along, had financial or domestic problems, engaged in some drug use, or had "other misconduct" during their military service. This frequently led to their release from military service with something less than an "honorable" discharge. Without that honorable "paper" they now cannot qualify for VA benefits.

This is a travesty. Give all veterans full VA benefits who can show service connected PTSD regardless of how their military service was characterized. Keep their discharge classification as "general" or "other than honorable" if you want, but give them what they really need - VA benefits, and then lets work on getting their characterization changed. They served their country, and they suffered from it. That we did not know then what we know now about PTSD and we went ahead back then and discharged them for poor military service consistent with the rules in place at the time, is not a defensible position if we want to do right for these men. Its never too late to correct an injustice. Isn't that what our compassionate flag waving country is all about? I think it is.

At the California Veterans Rights Center, we aid veterans in trying to get their discharge upgraded so that they can qualify for VA care. There are class lawsuits pending that some of these veterans may qualify for. If you know a veteran who might be suffering from PTSD from his military service, but who does not have an honorable discharge, have him call the Center or contact one of the many fine veterans advocacy groups that are trying to make life better for our veterans, and, in the end, for all of us.