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A Marine sued the Navy over how it handles ‘bad paper’ discharges and won

“Not everyone who serves overseas and is injured comes back missing a limb ... That doesn’t mean that everyone who comes back is perfectly okay."
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Tyson Manker atop Al Shaab stadium in Iraq, early April 2003. (Courtesy photo)

Almost 20 years after Tyson Manker was kicked out of the Marine Corps and given an other-than-honorable discharge for using marijuana to cope with his then-undiagnosed post-traumatic stress, his case will force the Navy to review and possibly reconsider other-than-honorable discharges given to Navy and Marine Corps personnel going back a decade. 

A federal court gave final approval to the settlement on Tuesday. It orders the Navy Discharge Review Board, which handles cases for both Navy and Marine Corps personnel, to reconsider appeals to upgrade discharges in instances when those veterans were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and experiences of military sexual trauma (MST). 

“The Court regards the proposed settlement of this case as an impressive example of the manner in which a class action can be made the vehicle for doing substantial justice and advancing the rule of law,” wrote Judge Charles Haight in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut. 

In 2003, Manker was a 21-year old corporal leading a squad of Marines during the invasion of Iraq. While deployed, his unit saw intense combat, and according to a 2018 New York Times profile, Manker was party to the accidental death of civilians during chaotic urban fighting. 

When he returned, Manker began self-medicating with marijuana as he struggled to deal with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which at the time had yet to enter the public’s leixcon, and was rarely screened for in returning troops. By the end of the year, he had been given an other-than-honorable discharge for drug use. Often referred to as a “bad paper” discharge, it prevented Manker from accessing health, education and disability benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs. 

In 2014, then-Secretary of Defense issued new guidance for upgrading discharges, instructing review boards to give “liberal consideration” in instances when a service-related medical disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder may have contributed to an other-than-honorable discharge. 

By 2017, Army and Air Force review boards were granting upgrades to 51% of applicants whose discharges were related to post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Yale Veterans Legal Service Clinic. The Navy, however, continued to deny most requests for discharge upgrades, approving just 16% of applications that year. 

Manker applied to upgrade his discharge in 2016, submitting a 65-page packet to the review board. It was quickly turned down, with Manker receiving a response that was just a few pages long and littered with misspellings. 

In 2018, Manker, along with the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress, filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Navy Discharge Review Board, on the basis that it had a “systemic institutional bias or secret policy that discriminates against applicants who suffer from PTSD.”

Under the settlement, the Navy’s review board will automatically reconsider general and other-than-honorable discharges granted between  March 2, 2012 and Feb. 15, 2022. It also allows eligible applicants who received such discharges between March 1, 2012 and Oct. 7, 2001, to resubmit a request to have their discharge upgraded. 

“Not everyone who serves overseas and is injured comes back missing a limb,” Manker said in 2018. “That doesn’t mean that everyone who comes back is perfectly okay … When soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen go to serve on the front lines in a foreign country, when they’re injured, their injuries aren’t properly treated.”

Now, nearly four years after the lawsuit was filed, the court’s decision will have a lasting impact on the lives of thousands of Navy and Marine Corps personnel. 

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