Remarks from Protect Our Defenders President Don Christensen at House Veterans’ Affairs Hearing on Bad Paper Discharges and VA Benefits
Washington, D.C. – On Wednesday, June 8th, the United States House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs held a hearing titled “Stuck in Red Tape: How the VA’s Regulatory Policies Prevent Bad Paper Veterans from Accessing Critical Benefits”.
Col. Don Christensen (ret.), the former Chief Prosecutor of the United States Air Force and President of POD, provided a statement for the record that discussed the failures of VA facilities to provide military sexual trauma treatment and services to veterans with other than dishonorable discharges.
Thank you again for the concern and leadership you have shown on the issue of bad paper discharges and the barriers to care veterans with bad paper discharges face at our country’s VA facilities. At Protect Our Defenders, our mission is to serve the interests of victims of military sexual violence and domestic violence. Consequently, we regularly work with clients who are directly impacted by bad paper discharges and are unable to obtain critical services at the VA that they need to manage the psychological impact of military sexual trauma.
In 1944, Congress amended Title 38 of the U.S. code to mandate that all veterans with discharges other than dishonorable be eligible for VA services. The spirit of this law was to ensure that veterans who received “bad paper” discharges which may have been related to undiagnosed mental health issues were still able to receive the care they needed at VA facilities.
Sadly, this has not been the case. Military sexual trauma survivors often find themselves without access to medical and psychological care once the VA has refused to provide services to the survivor. POD has even witnessed survivors with other than dishonorable discharges be turned away by their local VA when solely seeking MST-related treatment.
Service members with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from sexual trauma are especially vulnerable to receive bad paper discharges. In response to a sexual assault, a service member may turn to drugs or alcohol, take an unauthorized absence, or otherwise act in a manner that results in administrative or legal action against the survivor. Once the service member leaves the military, they not only retain the stain of a less than honorable discharge on their military record but are refused care at the VA. This refusal compounds the trauma the service member has experienced; first, they are punished for their sexual assault by the military with a less than honorable discharge, and then the VA turns their back on the service member and refuses to provide care. Abandoned by the agencies that were intended to support and provide care to the survivor, their chances for finding adequate psychological care on their own is minimal.
VA medical and psychological treatment for MST-related conditions is required by law to be available to all veterans with an other than dishonorable discharge. Yet, POD routinely hears from survivors with Other than Honorable and Bad Conduct discharges that were turned away from the VA for MST treatment by VA administrators. Unless survivors are already aware of their right to MST treatment with a bad paper discharge (which most are not) they then never receive the care they are entitled to. Only upon learning elsewhere of their entitlement to MST treatment do they attempt to contact the MST coordinator directly to gain access to treatment. This in of itself is another barrier, as clients repeatedly report long waiting times to speak with the MST coordinator, or never hear back at all.
In addition to the impact of MST survivors, we are also aware of the presence of disparate treatment of Blacks and other minorities in the military justice system. We have highlighted this disparity in our recently-published report titled Federal Lawsuit Reveals Air Force Cover Up: Racial Disparities in Military Justice Part II. I have no doubt this disparity extends to bad paper discharges, which would negatively affect people of color in obtaining VA benefits. This lifelong stigma not only robs them of the GI Bill, but is a permanent hurdle in obtaining post-service employment. Consequently, it is critical that we ensure minority servicemembers are not receiving unwarranted bad paper discharges.
Survivors of military sexual trauma and racially targeted minorities with bad paper discharges are in need of and deserving of quality, comprehensive psychological and medical treatment from the VA. When clients are refused services they are entitled to, this refusal negatively impacts their mental health and overall well being. It is imperative that the VA properly educate its employees on the MST program eligibility, so survivors with bad paper discharges are not excluded from the care they need. Otherwise, the VA is ultimately disregarding its mandate to “serve and care for the men and women who are America’s veterans.”
Thank you for the opportunity to provide a statement on this matter.
Don Christensen, Colonel (USAF, Ret.)
President, Protect Our Defenders