Mental Health-Related “Bad Paper Discharges”

Recent reports from advocacy and media outlets (1, 2, 3) have highlighted what is not a new phenomenon: the military’s failure to properly consider the effects of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injuries, Military Sexual Trauma, and other service-related mental health conditions before administratively separating soldiers with less-than-honorable discharges.

According to The NY Times (4), an alarming 13 percent of post-911 veterans have bad paper discharges. Among the Vietnam veteran population, tens of thousands with PTSD have been doubly injured by the black mark of an other-than-honorable discharge, resulting in decades of denied VA services and benefits (5).

Historically, commanders have failed to recognize the signs of trauma among soldiers, and instead, have interpreted the symptoms of injury as willful misconduct (6). For example, current Army policy allows for a soldier’s alleged misconduct to take precedence (7) over their medical conditions so that they can be administratively separated.

Today, with less than one percent of our nation’s citizens serving in our Armed Forces, it is a true travesty of justice that those who are suffering from service-related conditions–like PTSD, MST, and TBI– are being discharged without access (8) to the VA benefits they desperately need.

For most with less-than-honorable discharges, the stigma of their separation from service, combined with their physical and psychological symptoms, begins a downward spiral. Ousted from their former military community (9), and not eligible for health care and treatment from the Department of Veterans Affairs, these veterans are more likely to be homeless (10); more likely to suffer from substance abuse; more likely to go without treatment for physical and mental injuries; and they are at high risk for incarceration (11). And they are more likely to die by suicide (12).

Consider these facts according to the National Center for PTSD (13) –

Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Enduring Freedom (OEF): About 11-20 out of every 100 Veterans (or between 11-20%) who served in OIF or OEF have PTSD in a given year.

Gulf War (Desert Storm): About 12 out of every 100 Gulf War Veterans (or 12%) have PTSD in a given year.

Vietnam War: About 15 out of every 100 Vietnam Veterans (or 15%) were currently diagnosed with PTSD at the time of the most recent study in the late 1980s, the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS). It is estimated that about 30 out of every 100 (or 30%) of Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.

September is National Suicide Awareness month. According to the VA (14), since 2001, the rate of suicide among U.S. veterans who use VA services increased by 8.8 percent, while the rate of suicide among veterans who do not use VA services increased by 38.6 percent.
o In the same time period, the rate of suicide among male Veterans who use VA services increased 11 percent, while the rate of suicide increased 35 percent among male veterans who do not use VA services.
o In the same time period, the rate of suicide among female veterans who use VA services increased 4.6 percent while the rate of suicide increased 98 percent among female veterans who do not use VA services.
Congress can change these numbers by passing “The Fairness for Veterans Act.”


1. Swords to Plowshares editorial, March 29, 2016
2. Booted: Lack of Recourse for Wrongfully Discharged US Military Survivors. Human Rights Watch. May 2016
3. Missed Treatment: Soldiers with Mental Health Issues Dismissed for ‘Misconduct. Daniel Zwerdling and Michael de Yoanna. NPR October 28, 2015
4. Veterans Want Passed Discharges to Recognize Post-traumatic Stress. Dave Philips. New York Times. February 19, 2016
5. The Mental Health Care Bill for Vets That No One Is Talking About. Kristopher Goldsmith. Task & Purpose. April 6, 2016
6. Pattern of Misconduct. Dave Philips. The Colorado Springs Gazette. May 19 -21, 2013
7. What Happens When Veterans Receive Bad Paper Discharges? Tessa Poppe. Task & Purpose. February 10, 2015
8. How PTSD Cost Many Vets Their Military Benefits. Task & Purpose editorial. June 3, 2016
9. This Soldier Stood Up to Sexual Harassment. Then She Was Kicked Out of the Army. Jennifer Peters. Task & Purpose. May 23, 2016
10. 2 Words on a Vet’s Discharge Papers Can Be the Difference between Hope and Homelessness. Johnny Ismay. 89.3 KPCC. May 16, 2016
11. NPR’s Veterans with Less-Than-Honorable Discharges. Marisa Penaloza and Quil Lawrence of Justice for Vets. October 2015
12. What the Military Owes Rape Survivors Like My Daughter. Gary Noling. NY Times Op-ed article. August 9, 2016
13. National Center for PTSD.
14. VA Suicide Prevention Program Fact Sheet. July 2016

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