veterans left without health-care benefits
More than 20,000 men and women exited the
Army and Marines during the past four years with other-than-honorable
discharges that can restrict their veterans health-care and disability
benefits. Critics say those rules leave some troubled combat veterans
struggling to find treatment and support.
August 11, 2012
Seattle Times staff reporter
A few weeks after Jarrid Starks ended his
Army service in May, he went to an office in Albany, Ore., to enroll for
veterans health-care benefits.
Starks brought medical records that detailed
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a twisted vertebra and a possible brain
injury from concussions. Other records documented his tours of duty in Iraq and
Afghanistan, where his bravery fighting the Taliban was recognized with a
Bronze Star for Valor.
None of that was enough to qualify him for
health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
That's because Starks left the military this
year with an other-than-honorable discharge — his final year of service scarred
by pot smoking and taking absences without leave (AWOL).
He was told to fill out a form, then wait —
possibly a year or more — while officials review his military record to
determine whether he is eligible for health care.
"I was absolutely livid," Starks,
26, recalls. "This just isn't right."
Starks is among the more than 20,000 men and
women who exited the Army and Marines during the past four years with
other-than-honorable discharges that hamstring their access to VA health care
and may strip them of disability benefits.
Some were booted out of the military before
Others served in combat zones in Iraq and
Afghanistan, then struggled upon their return with drug abuse, unauthorized
leaves and other misconduct that placed them among the most troubled members of
the generation of veterans who fought in the long wars launched after 9/11.
Starks ended his military career this spring
with a weeklong stay at Madigan Army Medical Center under psychiatric care.
Then, he was escorted to the front gate of Joint Base Lewis-McChord carrying a
brown paper bag packed with a 90-day supply for six prescription drugs that
included antipsychotics, antidepressants, pain pills and beta-blockers.
As he left the Army to re-enter the civilian
world, Starks opted to wear a cap with a peculiar patch: "Warning, This
Vet Is Medicated For Your Protection."
Amid a surge in suicides among recent
veterans, politicians have increased VA budgets by billions of dollars to help
expand and improve the treatment of PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and other
conditions. They talk about forging a "seamless transition" from
military medical care to the VA.
But federal law draws a sharp dividing line
between honorably discharged veterans, who are offered access to veterans
health-care and disability compensation, and those whose misdeeds may put those
benefits at risk.
Veterans who fall below the threshold of an
honorable discharge must submit to a VA review of whether they engaged in
"willful and persistent misconduct," and if so, whether that makes
them ineligible for health-care or disability benefits.
"Each case is going to be different, so
it is important to go through all the evidence," said Leah Mazar, a
Veterans Benefits Administration analyst. "This is not something the VA
makes up. This is based on the laws and regulations."
In response to a Seattle Times request for
the number of veterans ruled ineligible for benefits, VA officials said the
department has no way to track how many of these reviews are conducted, how
long they take or their outcomes.
In recent years, the federal law that guides
veterans benefits has come under fire from a surprising source: some Army
lawyers frustrated by the frequency with which troubled combat veterans are
tossed out of the military without ready access to VA health care.
"I would go so far to say that, when we
speak of Army values, leaving no soldier behind, there is almost a moral
obligation," said Maj. Evan Seamone, chief of Military Justice at Fort
Benning, Ga., who in 2011 published a Military Law Review article critiquing
the Army legal system.
"We are creating a class of people who
need help the most, and may not be able to get it. And, when you do that, there
are whole families torn apart, and higher levels of crime. It's a public-health
and public-safety issue."
In another Military Law Review article, Maj.
Tiffany Chapman, a former Army prosecutor, argues that Congress should overhaul
a 1944 federal law that authorizes the VA to determine whether veterans without
honorable discharges are eligible for benefits.
"Out of fairness to the Soldier who
risked his life in combat, Congress must amend current legislation to ensure
that all veterans who suffer from service-connected PTSD are able to obtain
treatment regardless of the circumstances under which they were separated from
Others say that granting such benefits would
disrespect the vast majority of service members who go to war and complete
their service honorably.
"The veterans who advise our program,
they are still firm that an honorable discharge should be the standard for
care," said George Dignan, a King County official who helps to administer
A King County veterans program and a state
program that offer PTSD counseling have patterned eligibility after the federal
law and do not extend services to veterans who have an other-than-honorable
In Congress, there has not been much discussion
about changing the law.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., says that she is
concerned about any veterans who find themselves "outside of the VA
looking in" and that the appeals process needs to be "vastly
But Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Veterans'
Affairs Committee, does not favor new legislation and says these veterans
should continue to have their access to health care determined on a
Chapman, the former Army prosecutor, noticed
a pattern among soldiers who returned from combat, then launched into
misconduct that ended their service.
Some of these soldiers led troubled lives
long before they joined the military and unraveled even more once they returned
from Iraq or Afghanistan. Others appeared to be relatively stable before combat
but lost their way after they returned home.
"You just don't know how you are going
to react once you have been to war," Chapman said.
A 2010 survey of more than 90,000 Marines,
co-authored by Robyn McRoy of the Naval Health Research Center, found that
Marines who served in combat zones and received a PTSD diagnosis were more than
11 times more likely to receive a misconduct discharge than Marines who did not
deploy and did not have a PTSD diagnosis.
Some say the Marines are quick to crack down
on those who get in trouble.
"We have so many Marine cases where
there is one-time drug use," said Teresa Panepinto, legal-services
director with Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco-area organization that has
provided legal services for hundreds of veterans who received
When those veterans seek health care at the
VA, hospital staff can inform them about the misconduct review that might
result in benefits. The staff can then fill out the forms that kick off the
review process, according to Kristin Cunningham, a VA Health Administration
But the process apparently is not always well
Some veterans with other-than-honorable
discharges said they were never informed of the review process when they
initially showed up at VA hospitals.
"They told me I wasn't a veteran, and
should leave," recalls Clayton Lawson, an Iraq veteran with an
other-than-honorable discharge who sought health care at American Lake, a VA
hospital south of Tacoma, after leaving the Army in 2010.
Lawson had served at Lewis-McChord, where he
spent his final year in the Army in a destructive cycle of drug and alcohol
abuse, attempted suicides and AWOLs. At Lewis-McChord, he was diagnosed with
PTSD, a diagnosis later changed to an anxiety disorder, according to his
After getting rebuffed at American Lake,
Lawson turned to the Seattle Vet Center, the only arm of the VA authorized to
aid all veterans regardless of their discharge. The Vet Center could provide
counseling but couldn't provide medical care or medications that had been
prescribed before his discharge.
Lawson continued to abuse drugs and went
through more bouts of suicidal depression.
With Lawson having no VA hospital benefits,
the costs of caring for him shifted to other providers as he cycled in and out
of Western State Hospital and a hospital in his home state of Kentucky.
For weeks, Lawson lived in a tent he erected
in a patch of woods in Lakewood, Pierce County.
Encouraged by a Vietnam veteran who befriended
him, Lawson tried again to enroll for VA health care this year. This time, he
was accepted, apparently because the VA employee who took his application that
day failed to note the other-than-honorable status of his discharge.
Suddenly, Lawson was transformed from outcast
to a high-priority VA patient. He received a week of inpatient treatment in
Seattle. Later in the summer, he is scheduled to undergo an intensive program
at American Lake for PTSD and substance abuse.
"I just wish this could have happened
sooner," said his wife, Devon Lawson.
Other veterans say they were discharged from
military service with no information about the review process.
One Marine veteran who had been stationed at
Parris Island, S.C., said she was specifically told by a claims adviser and
Marine Corps superiors that she would never receive any VA health-care benefits
because of her other-than-honorable discharge.
The veteran, who requested anonymity, says
she had gone AWOL after being raped, and had hoped to access a VA sexual-trauma
program and hospital services. Earlier this year, she was surprised to learn
she might still be eligible for VA care and submitted an application that is
now under review.
"I am just grateful that the possibility
of help exists, contrary to the misleading advice of my superiors at Parris
Island," the veteran said.
on body, mind
For most of his military career, Starks
appeared to be an Army success story.
After his initial tour of duty in Iraq,
Starks was promoted up the ranks to serve as a staff sergeant in the 5th
Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, deployed to Afghanistan in 2009.
Three months into his deployment, Starks, in
command of an eight-wheeled Stryker, chased insurgents to a mud-brick compound
where they then began to fire on his vehicle. When an automatic-weapons-system
froze, he fended off the enemy by manually operating the heavy .50-caliber
machine gun. His actions earned him a Bronze Star.
Afghanistan took a toll on Starks' body and
Early in his tour, he was knocked unconscious
by a controlled detonation that went awry. He had an eerie sensation that he
had died and was somehow pulled back to life.
In another incident, on a night patrol, his
Stryker drove off a 25-foot bluff, slamming his back against the vehicle's
cupola and knocking him out.
Many of his nightmares stem from a January
2010 foot patrol.
At the end of the patrol, a Stryker vehicle
that came to pick up Starks and his soldiers was destroyed by a bomb, killing
one of his friends. The villagers who had set the bomb fled on motorbikes.
Starks ended up killing one of them along with an 8-year-old boy seated on the
"For most of that deployment, I did not
see myself returning," Starks said.
He did return. But his father, a Vietnam
veteran who lives in Salem, Ore., noticed a huge change.
"He was really distant. He didn't laugh
much," recalls Lonnie Starks. "He got really nervous. Absolutely no
A year ago, his PTSD was deemed so severe
that his medical records indicated he was unable "to carry and fire"
a weapon. These records also noted evidence of a mild traumatic brain injury,
and all this set the stage for a medical retirement.
But the heavily medicated Starks, living off
the Lewis-McChord post, started not showing up for duty and eventually went
AWOL for a total of more than a month. While absent, he holed up in his small
apartment in Rochester, Thurston County.
Finally in April, he came to the base for
another medical examination he hoped would get his retirement back on track.
But his AWOLs and repeated positive tests for marijuana resulted in his being
jailed for several weeks.
Depressed and suicidal after his release, he
was admitted to Madigan for a week of treatment, then dismissed from the Army.
According to documents reviewed by The
Seattle Times, Starks' brigade commander on March 28 recommended he receive a
general discharge that would have allowed him access to the VA "in the
hopes he will avail himself of benefits and turn his life around."
But that recommendation wasn't followed, and
he received the other-than-honorable discharge.
leaving the Army, Starks has been living with his father in Salem, and plans to
enter community college in the fall to study psychology.
Through the summer, he continued to take his
six medications until he ran out of pills.
In early August, he was surprised to receive
a letter from Gen. Eric Shinseki, the VA's secretary. It welcomed him home, and
singled him out as a combat veteran eligible for five years of free VA health
"On behalf of the men and women of the
VA, and a grateful Nation, thank you for your service," Shinseki wrote.
The letter prompted him to call a county
representative assisting with his VA claim.
"I was told this was nothing more than
mass mailing," Starks said. "And I should disregard the letter."
Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org