Friday, September 23, 2011

Congressional Public Law 95-26: Denying Benefits to Veterans

Ed Note: I met Rick Staggenborg at the Veterans For Peace National Convention in Portland, Oregon this past August. He was a panel member on a VA Benefits workshop being put on by Coffee Strong, a Veteran Owned, Pro G.I., Anti-war Veterans' advocacy and outreach  project located in Lakewood, Washington. Jan Ruhman had keyed me up on Rick, and asked me to get in touch with him. Rick had recently made a unsuccessful  run at the US Senate. He had also been a VA Psychiatrist and is well versed in the elusive diagnosis called by the medical community, PTSD. Here he addresses one of it's more debilitting manifestations; Bad Discharges. WH


In 1995, Congress codified as Public Law 95-126 the VA policy denying benefits to veterans who receive less than honorable discharges, including those who served in combat in Vietnam and subsequent wars of choice. These veterans can only receive services by going through a difficult, painful and often unsuccessful process requiring them to debase themselves by begging their former military Service to upgrade their discharge status. 
In the process, they have to relive their combat trauma and in some cases have to contact those with whom they served. This drags up horrific memories that they have struggled to suppress, often through drugs, alcohol and promiscuity. This is the reason they acted out through drunkenness, disobedience or desertion of their posts stateside after return from combat. I know this because it has been the case in every veteran I have met who falls under the provisions of this Catch-22 implemented by a group of chicken hawks who were too busy setting the country up for economic destruction to consider the consequences of their actions on our veterans.

The men and women affected by PL 95-126 volunteered or were compelled by our own government to serve the interests of the corporations who our elected representatives feel they need to serve to maintain their positions of power. After all, they reason, someone has to pay for the propaganda campaigns that confuse the general public, justifying unnecessary wars and the real reasons for them, as well as lining the pockets of the rich by subverting democracy worldwide in the name of America. Many of the members of Congress responsible for this outrage shamelessly lied to the young, patriotic men and women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as their parents about the reasons they were sent to kill and die. 

Now that these service members have done their duty, many of those most in need of help from the VA have been casually discarded, as were the Vietnam veterans before them. The ordeal of seeking help causes flare-ups of PTSD symptoms and reminds these veterans of the fact that their government chose to dishonor them rather than treat the wounds of war and the economic devastation that these politicians themselves inflicted on these combat veterans. The same is true when any of the estimated 30% of female OEF vets are erroneously told that they are not entitled to VA services to treat the psychological damage from the devastating psychological trauma of being raped in the service.
These women are often among the worst affected by symptoms of PTSD. A high proportion of them were sexually abused in childhood but were functioning well enough to serve until being re-traumatized during their terms of service by the very men who were supposed to guard their backs. Almost to a woman, they were then ostracized by their peers, often even if they chose not to report the crime. This has led to a gross underestimate of the actual incidence of this form of trauma, which is magnified by the abuse and neglect that followed from their command, in the name of “maintaining unit cohesion.”

I suspect that most veterans falling under PL 95-126 choose not to engage in this fight, knowing that even if they succeed in obtaining an upgrade of their discharge, they then have to argue that they suffer “mental illness” as a result of their service. PTSD is not a mental illness, leaving the VA to decide whether or not to resort to semantic gymnastics in order to provide the services that most of us in the VA dedicate our professional lives to providing. What they do not know if they choose to engage in this long battle is that they only stand a 50% chance of success at each step, according to unofficial sources with whom I have consulted.

What is worse, the law does not even have a provision to allow the VA to conduct evaluations of those who win the lottery in the first step. They are required to somehow obtain independent psychiatric evaluations in order to make their case. Fortunately or unfortunately, those who need the help most are generally impoverished by their circumstances, so they could get these exams through programs set up for the poor, if they are lucky enough to realize that such services are often available in the community. Because these individuals most often have divorced themselves from society in their shame, anger and despair, I suspect that few even try to navigate the labyrinth of steps required to obtain services, if they are lucky enough to succeed.

This crime against the youth of our nation, many now having grown up and producing a new generation of alienated and disaffected youth, is unacceptable. The VA may play a role because of the communication problems endemic in such a large organization, but the real fault lies with our complacent Congress. All of us who want to truly honor our veterans must demand that the members of the Veterans Committee in the Senate act at once to atone for this sin against our nation. Please call Senator Webb, Senator Tester or other members of the Veteran Affairs Committee at 866-220-0044 and demand action. I do not believe that either of these diligent and hardworking senators is aware of the problem, despite my attempts at asking for help through their aides.

When I spoke to Phillip Brady, Veteran Affairs aide to Senator Webb, he made inquiries, speaking to the DOD and VA about the problem. As the only office in either organization authorized to speak to Congress is presumably the office of public affairs, both predictably denied that it was a problem. If you are as outraged at this whitewash, please let these Senator Webb in particular know.  As a decorated Vietnam veteran and father of an Iraq war veteran, he may be willing to dig deeper and speak to someone more appropriate at the VA Central Office.  I suggested to Phillip that he start with the then-VA director of Mental Health Services, Dr Ira Katz. Dr Katz was a dedicated public servant who has been unfairly maligned by the media in the past but who has privately expressed his concern about this law as well.

Please contact every veteran group and veteran advocacy group that you can locate.   Let them know that you share my anger at this continuing mistreatment of combat veterans and sexually abused female veterans who only wanted to serve their country while in fact being used as tools by a cynical, cowardly Congress to serve the interests of their corporate Puppetmasters. While you are at it, Let them know that the men and women who joined the military  from other countries are our brothers and sisters and that we will not stand by while they are deported because of problems stemming from PTSD.

Captain, USA (Ret)
Former VA Psychiatrist, North Bend, OR

Some Additional Research, Information, and Resources:

"Does it Hurt on the Inside? Post Vietnam Syndrome". The First Casualty Vol 2, Number 1. VVAW. Chicago (1972)

Seiberling, John. "Secret Discharge Codes". Winter Soldier, Vol 4 Number 4. VVAW. Chicago (1974)

Ford, Diane. "Are We Still missing The Point". The Veteran, Vol 37, Number 1. VVAW. Chicago (2007)

Overview of Discharge Upgrading re DOD 

What You should Know About How to Upgrade Your Military Discharge re US Army Trial Defense Service

Swords To Plowshares Veterans Advocacy

Vietnam Veterans Against The War: Veteran Resources and Military Counseling Service