What a Mental Health Discharge Upgrade for Vets Means for Active Members
April 21, 2021
In April 2017, Iraq War veteran Stephen Kennedy filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of about 50,000 soldiers. The settlement class includes members and former members of the Army, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard who served during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and who:
- Were less-than-honorably discharged;
- Have not received a discharge upgrade; and
- Were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other related mental health conditions at the time of discharge.
If the settlement is approved in court, it will force the Army to reevaluate and potentially upgrade the discharges to honorable. An upgraded discharge would restore these former soldiers’ eligibility to receive benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
What Conditions Spurred the Lawsuit?
When Kennedy came home from a tour in Iraq, he struggled with depression and PTSD. His mental health deteriorated further, leading to alcohol abuse and self-harm. This misconduct spurred by PTSD prompted the Army to deliver a general discharge, blocking Kennedy from VA benefits that could have helped him recover from the very condition that got him discharged in the first place.
Every soldier wants an honorable discharge because this is the only way to gain full access to VA benefits, including medical and mental healthcare, disability benefits, housing, and GI Bill education benefits. But discharge status is about more than just benefits. A stigma surrounds less-than-honorable discharges, leading to lost employment opportunities and a greater risk of substance misuse among veterans.
The Army Discharge Review Board (ADRB) repeatedly denied Kennedy’s upgrade applications, so he sued.
Why Aren’t Discharge Upgrades for PTSD Already Commonplace?
Congress formed the ADRB to give veterans a chance to upgrade their discharge status if it was issued unjustly. However, the Board has routinely denied PTSD-based applications for decades. Kennedy’s class-action lawsuit challenges the ADRB’s systemic failure to consider mental health conditions when veterans request a discharge upgrade.
Around 20 percent of Iraq War veterans, or more than 300,000 service members, experience PTSD. This and similar conditions—including traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and military sexual trauma (MST)—are supposed to be considered as mitigating circumstances that warrant a discharge upgrade. However, the military ignores this rule far too often.
What are the Settlement Terms?
In November 2020, the parties agreed upon the terms of the settlement, subject to court approval. First, the ADRB would automatically reconsider thousands of denied discharge upgrade requests that contained evidence of a PTSD, TBI, or MST diagnosis dating back to April 2011. Veterans who submitted applications as far back as Oct 2001 would be given a chance to reapply and potentially benefit from the recently relaxed laws and guidelines.
A favorable ruling would bring about a second positive change—upgrade hearings could be conducted over the phone, making the process less burdensome for former service members. The law currently requires veterans to travel to Washington, DC and appear personally before the ADRB for their hearing.
A federal judge was scheduled to hear public comments on March 24 and should finalize the settlement within weeks. If approved, Kennedy hopes to see similar changes across other branches of the military. Better yet, he wants the military to break the connection between discharge status and VA benefits.
If you are an Army veteran affected by the Kennedy settlement, you can learn more by reading the class notice. Even if you are still an active service member, these changes could impact you when you become a veteran. Understanding your rights to request an honorable discharge because of a mental health disorder could be just what you need to keep your honor intact.
Get Help Submitting a Discharge Upgrade Application
Have you already received an other-than-honorable discharge? Perhaps you are awaiting the outcome of an administrative separation board or are currently facing disciplinary action for misconduct resulting from PTSD or similar mental health conditions. Regardless of your situation, reach out to Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law for assistance with your discharge upgrade.
Our military lawyer can help you gather the evidence and complete the paperwork you need to prove why the reasons behind your discharge are unjust due to your mental health disorder. We are experts on military law and the legal grounds for issuing other-than-honorable discharges, so we can aggressively and skillfully advocate for your rights!