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Path To Reclaiming Identity Steep For Vets With 'Bad Paper'

Michael Hartnett was a Marine during the Gulf War and served in Somalia. He received a bad conduct discharge for abusing drugs and alcohol. His wife, Molly, helped him turn his life around.
Quil Lawrence
Michael Hartnett was a Marine during the Gulf War and served in Somalia. He received a bad conduct discharge for abusing drugs and alcohol. His wife, Molly, helped him turn his life around.

When Michael Hartnett was getting kicked out of the U.S. Marine Corps, he was too deep into post-traumatic stress disorder, drugs and alcohol to care as his battalion commander explained to the young man that his career was ending, and ending badly.

"Do you understand what I'm saying to you, son? It's going to be six and a kick," Hartnett recalls the commander telling him.

The "six" was an expected six months of hard labor in the brig. The kick happened at Hartnett's court-martial, and finally woke him up out of the haze.

"He said 'bad conduct discharge.' When he said that, my knees buckled," says Hartnett.

In 1993, after combat tours in the Gulf War and Somalia, Hartnett joined tens of thousands of veterans with "bad paper." They served but then conducted themselves badly — anything from repeated breaches of military discipline to drugs or more serious crimes. Under current law, the Pentagon and, in most cases, the Department of Veterans Affairs wash their hands of these veterans.

They lose benefits like the GI Bill for school or a VA home loan, but they also can't get VA health care and disability compensation, even for the PTSD that may have caused the bad discharge. No jobs programs from the government or the private sector; even VA homelessness prevention is geared only toward honorably discharged vets.

"You might as well have never even enlisted," says Hartnett. "[It's] worse than being a convicted felon."

Veterans with bad discharges stand apart, as troops returning from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan enjoy an outpouring of public goodwill and unprecedented spending at the VA. Even for veterans who get in trouble with the law there is a harsh divide. Vets who make their mistakes after getting out of the military with an honorable discharge have access to relief, like the special veterans' courts that are springing up around the country. They allow vets supervised treatment instead of jail time. If the same crime is committed by an active-duty soldier, the consequences are different, says Tom White, an Iraq veteran who taught law at West Point.

"It may be a month before they get out [of the military]. The command come down on you like a ton of bricks. Justice is typically served cold and hard," he says.

White directs the veterans' legal clinic at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. He and other advocates across the country see a wave of young vets having brushes with the law.

"We see it coming, and we see a deluge," says Sharon Schlerf, who runs Beacon Institute Military Support in Virginia. She likens the problems of some young vets with troubled veterans of the Vietnam generation, neglected for years, increasing the cost to the veterans and to society.

"From the incarceration to homelessness, all of the issues. ... If you don't capture them now, get them stabilized, then all we are doing is doubling those numbers," says Schlerf.

When the veterans can't get VA help, it's groups like Beacon that pick up the slack, which doesn't make economic sense, according to Phil Carter, an Iraq veteran at the Center for a New American Security.

"In many of these cases, there's a very good justification for giving bad paper," he says. "But at a strategic level, the government has to take the long view and ask whether they want to deprive these people of support for their lifetime, and shift the burden of care from the immense and very capable resources of the VA to communities and nonprofits across the country who don't have those resources. There's a very, very large cost to society by giving bad paper."

At a recent conference of veterans treatment courts in Washington, D.C., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, responded to a question about helping veterans with bad paper.

"I wouldn't suggest that we should in any way reconsider the way we characterize discharges at the time of occurrence," Dempsey said. "It is a complex issue and we all make choices in life that then we live with for the rest of our lives and I think we have to understand that as well."

Dempsey pointed out that there are ways to correct or revise a discharge.

But veterans with bad paper say myths and misconceptions surround the process. The most commonly held misconception is that an "other than honorable" discharge automatically upgrades after a few months or years. It does not.

Getting a discharge upgrade is possible with several categories of discharge. That's what Michael Hartnett did. After more than 15 years of PTSD-fueled drug abuse — through jail, psychiatric wards and homelessness — a discharge review board granted clemency. The board concluded that evidence of PTSD should have been considered at his court-martial in 1993.

"I was forgiven. It was the Marines saying, 'You've had enough, Michael. Go live your life. Do something with it.' I'd like to write them up and say, 'Look, with the chance that you've given me, this is what I've done with it,' " he says. Hartnett now gets education benefits, and he's using them to get a degree in social work, with the aim of helping other vets.

A discharge upgrade like his is uncommon, requires a lawyer and can take years. But there are remedies open to veterans with bad paper, who can appeal at the VA for a character of service evaluation.

"We encourage veterans who have bad discharges ... to file a claim. We'll then review it, and there's a possibility always that we'll find in favor," says Brad Flohr, a senior adviser at the VA.

Getting a veteran status with the VA is the goal for many community organizations. Johanna Buwalda, a Chicago-based therapist with The Soldiers Project, says she finds herself helping veterans complete the VA paperwork — no small feat.

"It's not easy to do," she says. "The problem is, if you have no job, you have severe PTSD, you don't trust anybody. There's these piles of paperwork, your own story you need to put together telling why you believe this discharge happened — which is re-traumatizing."

Buwalda says it takes impressive resolve to make it through the VA appeal. If a veteran can make it through all that paperwork without rage or despair, it's a sign that veteran might be on the way to recovery.

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Marisa Peñaloza is a senior producer on NPR's National Desk. Peñaloza's productions are among the signature pieces heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as weekend shows. Her work has covered a wide array of topics — from breaking news to feature stories, as well as investigative reports.
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.