The one big policy change 2020 Democrats want to make for veterans, explained

People watch the Veterans Day Parade on November 11, 2019, in New York City. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Democrats want to give some veterans with an other-than-honorable discharge Veterans Affairs benefits.

Four of the five major 2020 Democratic candidates have released detailed plans for how to improve veterans’ care just in time for Veterans Day. And though their plans differ, they all agree on one thing: Former service members with undeserved “other than honorable” discharges should receive the full suite of Department of Veterans Affairs benefits.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) have all released new plans that include measures to expand VA benefits to 500,000 veterans who are currently denied them because of their discharge status.

Simply put, veterans with an “honorable” discharge — meaning a service member ended their service in good standing with no issues whatsoever — can use the VA for their physical and mental health care needs, as well as for readjustment into civilian life and reemployment assistance. It’s the only designation that doesn’t negatively impact a veteran’s benefits.

But those with a lesser rating, especially an “other than honorable” discharge (OTH), have their access to VA benefits either restricted or denied altogether. Troops get that designation if their service branch determines their conduct to be a security threat or unbecoming of the uniform, among other things. Veterans with that or any designation that’s not solely “honorable” are said to have “bad paper.”

The problem, experts say, is that sometimes a service member’s OTH rating stems from trauma-induced behavior stemming from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or sexual assault. Some also say that minorities receive more severe punishments for infractions than other service members.

And while recent legislation — signed by President Donald Trump — allows for diagnostic and mental health services to those with an OTH rating, critics say the VA under Trump has done little to inform them that they can get at least some care now.

Which means there are likely thousands of veterans around America that should receive their earned VA benefits but can’t. That’s an issue, as veterans with an OTH discharge die by suicide and suffer homelessness and joblessness at higher rates than veterans with an honorable designation.

“Every day that passes, these traumas are killing people,” said Kristoffer Goldsmith, an Army veteran and president of the Higher Ground Veterans Advocacy group.

2020 Democrats, then, aim to change that.

How a service member gets “bad paper”

Last year, NPR interviewed former Marine Lance Cpl. Josh Onan, a veteran who’d served in Iraq and, after a 2006 roadside bomb, sustained a head injury and suffered from PTSD. He committed many small infractions during his time in service, which he told NPR was due to the medication he took at the time; during one of his leaves he was found with cocaine. He was promptly kicked out of the Marines with an OTH discharge — “bad paper.”

Many would say that’s justified, as Onan broke both minor and major military rules. But some veterans’ advocates argue that this kind of behavior often stems from mental health struggles and could have been avoided if the service member in question had received proper medical treatment.

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World War I American infantry reenactors march in the Veterans Day Parade on November 11, 2019 in New York City.

Or take this hypothetical: Imagine a soldier was sexually abused by a superior officer. When asked to attend a meeting with the offending officer, the soldier chooses not to go to that gathering or perform other duties to stay away from the assailant. That could lead to the victim’s other-than-honorable discharge for not doing what was repeatedly commanded.

That’s why some believe cases like these need a formal review and appeals process to investigate and clarify the real reason for the misbehavior.

A 2017 study by the US Government Accountability Office found that around 62 percent of service members separated from the military were diagnosed with PTSD or other mental injuries within two years prior to their discharge.

“The military is criminalizing rather than treating mental illnesses and other traumas,” Alex McCoy, the political director of the anti-Trump veterans group Common Defense, told me.

To its credit, the VA under Trump has tried to address these issues. In 2017, for example, it instituted a program to give veterans with an OTH discharge up to 90 days of care for mental health emergencies. Per the VA’s own numbers, 1,818 former service members with that rating received mental health services in 2018, about three times more than the 648 people treated in 2017. And of the 2,580 veterans with the OTH designation who received VA care in 2018, 1,076 had a mental health diagnosis.

Yet critics argue the VA didn’t do enough to inform eligible veterans about the new programs. “There’s no public awareness campaign, Trump hasn’t spoken about it, and the VA’s leader hasn’t made it a priority,” says Higher Ground Veterans Advocacy’s Goldsmith, who attempted to die by suicide while in the Army, leading the service to give him a less-than-honorable discharge.

The VA did send letters to those who could use the mental health benefits. But Goldsmith told me that it was slapdash at best, and in one case the most recent address on file for an eligible veteran was from 1968.

In the meantime, those whose misconduct is linked to their mental traumas suffer outside of the service. When a potential employer asks to see military discharge papers, they’ll see it doesn’t say “honorable” and may be less likely to hire that candidate. “It’s a scarlet letter of shame,” said Common Defense’s McCoy, who served in the Marines for six years.

Without a good income, it’s hard to pay rent or buy a house. And without a job or residence, mental injuries can worsen over time — but yet not receive any treatment. This “negative feedback loop can retraumatize a person,” said Goldsmith.

For those and other reasons, according to the Democratic campaigns I spoke to, solving the OTH discharge problem has become a major priority in their veterans care platforms.

Democrats need veterans to win in 2020

The VA estimates there will be roughly 19 million veterans in America next year, and a disproportionate number live in key states like Nevada, South Carolina, and Virginia. Any presidential candidate must consider and address the needs of veterans to have a shot at winning next year’s election.

Working on OTH discharge concerns is one way to get many veterans on board. Leading veterans’ advocacy groups — Vietnam Veterans of America, the American Legion, and Disabled Veterans of America — have pushed for those with the OTH rating to get more help from the VA.

Few are against this idea, but those who are cite an increased VA budget as their major concern. That’s understandable, as the Veterans Affairs department is the government’s second-largest agency with a roughly $220 billion budget. But it’s unlikely that providing mental health services for a thousand more veterans will substantially increase the department’s costs, advocates say.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg are introduced before the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on October 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio.

Still, the general popularity of the policy change helps explain why top 2020 Democrats put it in their veterans’ plans.

While there are some differences, all four plans — from Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg, and Harris — basically do three things. First, they allow those with an OTH discharge to get interim VA benefits while they appeal their designation. Second, they order a review of OTH discharge cases to see if mistakes were made. Third, they call for a general overhaul of the process that leads to an OTH rating.

Those are all key measures, McCoy told me, but especially the first one. Appeals are extremely time consuming and cost money. If a veteran is unemployed, perhaps because of the designation on their discharge form, it can be hard to find a good attorney to help with the paperwork. That could lead to mistakes or the veteran not fully understanding what documents are required to plead their case.

Plus, most hearings take place in Washington, DC. If a sailor in Alaska or Arizona wants to plead her case, it’s expensive to travel all the way for the session. That also makes it difficult for a potential active-duty witness who might be stationed in Germany or South Korea to make it stateside to offer testimony.

“The whole process is insufficient,” McCoy said.

Perhaps the greatest change any of the Democrats’ plans may bring, though, is the feeling veterans will experience if they finally have their wrongful OTH discharge changed on official papers. Goldsmith received a less-than-honorable discharge for his suicide attempt, which isn’t as bad as the OTH rating but still stopped him from getting some benefits. It took 12 years for him to get the Army to recognize its mistake and change his paperwork to say “honorable.”

It means the world to him. “This is the first Veterans Day that I’m a fully honorable vet,” Goldsmith told me. He hopes others in similar positions get to not only reap the benefits of being “honorable” veterans themselves, but also the pride of being one. “You can’t underestimate how much that matters,” he said.

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