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Report Finds Sharp Increase In Veterans Denied V.A. Benefits

By Dave Phillips, New York Times

Joshua Bunn was a rifleman in one of the bloodiest valleys in Afghanistan, where his infantry unit killed hundreds of enemy fighters and lost more comrades than any other battalion in the Marine Corps in 2008.

“We were so far out in Taliban country we rarely got resupply,” Mr. Bunn, 27, said in an interview from his apartment in Jonesboro, Ark. “We just got rockets and small-arms fire every day.”

After deployment, Mr. Bunn, suicidal and haunted by nightmares, went absent without leave. The Marine Corps charged him with misconduct and gave him an other-than-honorable discharge.

As a consequence, the Department of Veterans Affairs does not technically consider Mr. Bunn a veteran and has denied him permanent heath care, disability pay and job training intended to ease his return to civilian life. According to a new report, he is one of a growing number of veterans ruled ineligible for benefits because of less-than-honorable discharges.

Former members of the military like Mr. Bunn are being refused benefits at the highest rate since the system was created at the end of World War II, the report said. More than 125,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have what are known as “bad paper” discharges that preclude them from receiving care, said the report, released Wednesday by the veterans advocacy group Swords to Plowshares.

The report for the first time compared 70 years of data from the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. It found that veterans who served after 2001 were nearly twice as likely as those who served during Vietnam to be barred from benefits, and four times as likely as men and women who served during World War II.

“We separate people for misconduct that is actually a symptom of the very reason they need health care,” said Coco Culhane, a lawyer who works with veterans at the Urban Justice Center in New York.

About 6.5 percent of all Iraq and Afghanistan troops have bad paper discharges, the report said. The highest rate is found in the Marine Corps, where one in 10 is now ineligible for benefits.

“It has gotten worse with every generation, and it appears to hit the veterans Congress intended to protect,” said Bradford Adams, a lawyer and an author of the report. “They knew these folks had been through combat, and wanted to make sure they had help. The V.A. doesn’t seem to be doing that.”

Specifically who is eligible for veterans benefits was detailed in the original Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the G. I. Bill. The law barred troops with dishonorable discharges — those convicted at court-martial of serious crimes — as well as spies, deserters and a few others considered particularly heinous. To allow leeway for less serious misconduct that might result from combat, Congress left open the door to benefits for a spectrum of discharges between honorable and dishonorable, including “undesirable” and “other than honorable.”

“We are trying to give the veteran the benefit of the doubt, for we think he is entitled to it,” Harry W. Colmery, a World War I veteran who wrote most of the G. I. Bill, told Congress at a hearing in 1944 before the bill was passed.

The rising proportion of ineligible veterans is largely due to the military’s increasing reliance on other-than-honorable discharges, which have been used as a quick way to dismiss troubled men and women who might otherwise qualify for time-consuming and expensive medical discharges.

The G. I. Bill instructed the veterans agency to care for veterans if their service was “other than dishonorable.” The agency interpreted this as excluding “other than honorable” discharges.

Though veterans can apply for a category upgrade, the process is confusing, inconsistent and slow, Mr. Adams said.

Only 10 percent of veterans are successful; a decision takes, on average, four years, the report said. In some regions, all requests are rejected.

In a statement, the deputy secretary of veterans affairs, Sloan D. Gibson, said he welcomed the report’s findings. “Where we can better advocate for and serve veterans within the law and regulation, we will look to do so as much as possible,” he said.

Research has shown that veterans with bad paper discharges may be more likely to commit suicide. Those with untreated post-traumatic stress disorder are at higher risk of drug abuse and incarceration.

Ted Wilson, a Vietnam veteran in Concord, Calif., was hospitalized in 1966 in Okinawa, Japan, for a suicide attempt days after he participated what he called a “village massacre.” When the Marine Corps sent him back to combat, he went AWOL and got an undesirable discharge in 1968.

He fell into a drug abuse and crime and spent years in prison. “I had to deal with everything myself,” he said. “Maybe having help would have made a difference.”

Mr. Bunn feels the same. He was hospitalized for slashing his wrists when he got home from Afghanistan. He then became a target of abuse in his platoon and was denied help, he said, so he ran away from his base in California. When he was caught in 2010, he said, he was told that a medical discharge would take years, and that he would be better off voluntarily taking an other-than-honorable discharge.

Now he works part time as a dishwasher but finds it hard to keep a job, he said. He has been in and out of jail. He has five years of health care given to all combat veterans, which is set to run out this year.

“I really don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “Afghanistan happened, and I’m a whole different person. But no one really wants to hear that.”

Correction: March 31, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated the year in which Joshua Bunn, who is trying to get permanent veterans benefits, and his battalion saw the heaviest fighting in Afghanistan. It was 2008, not 2009.
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