Many of us are familiar with the GI Bill passed after WWII which opened up veterans benefits to many returning GIs. However, many may not know that after President Jimmy Carter granted clemency to the soldiers who went absent without leave (AWOL) in Vietnam, Congress retaliated by passing Public Law 95-126.
Where the original GI Bill passed in 1944 deliberately left the definition of a veteran open to any without a dishonorable discharge, Congress in 1977 limited the definition to only those with an honorable discharge. Why does that matter today? In recent years, the military’s reliance on so-called “bad paper” discharges has sharply increased—the same discharges that would disqualify a veteran from receiving benefits. A recent article from Task & Purpose highlights the negative impact Public Law 95-126 has had for veterans of post-9/11 conflict.
Today, almost 40 years after Congress passed the law, many veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan receive bad paper discharges to avoid the lengthy and costly process of getting a medical discharge. Unfortunately, many don’t realize that this precludes them from receiving benefits. In fact, those not receiving care are far more likely to face substance abuse, incarceration, homelessness and are at a greater risk of suicide.
This year, House Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado, a former Marine colonel, introduced two bills. The intent of the first bill is to ensure access to critical health care for returning veterans by shifting the burden of proof in favor of veterans, especially those diagnosed with brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or military-related sexual trauma. As long as these veterans are appealing less-than-honorable discharges, the bill would open up treatment options.
The other of these bills, the Veteran Urgent Access to Mental Healthcare Act, would provide almost all veterans with suicide prevention health services and an initial mental health assessment. Proponents argue that this bill is merely a return to the original intent of the GI Bill, not a new bill in and of itself. They also argue that the bill doesn’t take away from veterans who served and received an honorable discharge. Instead, it’s a way of ensuring that all who served our nation receive the care they need.
The challenges facing veterans are very real and many feel that access to health care is one of the most basic ways to care for those who have served our country. If you or someone you love has served our country, there are many advocacy groups that aim to ensure veterans receive all the benefits for which they are eligible. If you are unsure, contact one of these groups or an attorney with experience dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs and veterans benefits.
Reference: Task & Purpose (April 6, 2016) “The Mental Health Care Bill for Vets that No One is Talking About”