A fascinating class-action lawsuit was filed earlier this month by a group of Vietnam War veterans, alleging that they were suffering from then-undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when they given other-than-honorable discharges.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Connecticut on Dec. 3, seeks to have those discharges upgraded. The court papers, drawn up by Yale Law School students who do work for a veterans legal clinic, names John W. Shepherd Jr. as the lead plaintiff on behalf of other Vietnam vets.
The New York Times wrote a story about the lawsuit, and followed that up on Monday with an editorial on the issue.
While veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are finally benefiting from the military’s grudging acknowledgment that PTSD is as serious an injury as a gunshot wound, Vietnam vets have been left in the lurch.
According to The Times, Shepherd was in the Army in combat in the Mekong Delta in 1969 , and won a medal for using a grenade to kill several enemy soldiers in bunker. But several weeks later, Shepherd’s platoon leader was killed as he tried to help Shepherd.
After that, The Times reported, Shepherd became extremely anxious and finally refused to go on patrol. He was court-martialed and discharged under what the lawsuit called “other-than-honorable conditions,” or a so-called undesirable discharge. Shepherd claims that he had PTSD during the war, and if he had been diagnosed with such he could have received an honorable discharge.
He isn’t the only Vietnam vet in this position. The Yale students estimated that more than 250,000 Vietnam veterans received discharges under other-than-honorable conditions, and that about 80,000 of them were suffering from PTSD.
Being branded with an other-than-honorable discharge has lots of ramifications for a veteran, none of them good. As The Times pointed out, it can make it difficult for them to find a job. And there are other problems.
“Because of their stigmatizing charges, many of these veterans are ineligible for the disability compensation and other benefits that their service has otherwise earned,” the suit says.
It also points out that today, service members alleging PTSD “must receive a medical examination and, potentially, a medical discharge. However, the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force have refused to review or upgrade the discharge status of the thousands of Vietnam War era veterans with service-related PTSD.”
In fact, the lawsuit names the three military secretaries as defendants. In addition to Shepherd, the suit’s plaintiffs include the group Vietnam Veterans of America.
The suit also says that since 2003, Vietnam vets claiming PTSD have filed about 145 applications seeking to have their discharges upgraded from other-than-honorable. But only two of these, or just 1.4 percent, have been approved.
Yet the overall approval rate for all discharge-upgrade applications is 46 percent, according to the suit.
The Times’ editorial seems to side with the Shepherd and the Vietnam vets and their suit. So do I.
We cannot completely make right how these Vietnam vets have been stigmatized, but we can make sure they can at least receive the benefits that they are due.