VA Is Denying Benefits To Vets With Bad Paper Discharges At Unprecedented Rates, Report Finds

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In this June 9, 2014 file photo is a sculpture portraying a wounded soldier being helped on the grounds of the Minneapolis VA Hospital.
Associated Press photo by Jim Mone

A report released March 30 found that the Department of Veterans Affairs has been excluding post-9/11 veterans with bad paper discharges from earned benefits at unprecedented rates and suggests this may be in violation of the 1944 GI Bill of Rights.


According to Swords to Plowshares and National Veterans Legal Services Program, the VA has excluded 125,000 post-9/11 veterans without ever reviewing their service. This includes roughly 33,000 who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and amounts to 6.5% of all post-9/11 service members. In contrast, only 2.8% of Vietnam-era veterans and 1.7% of World War II-era veterans are excluded by the VA due to bad paper discharges.

Bad paper discharges occur when a service member leaves the military under conditions that are less than honorable and include other-than-honorable, bad conduct, and dishonorable discharges.

Related: What happens to veterans who receive ‘bad paper’ discharges »

The report is the combined effort of two veterans-oriented nonprofits and cites the VA’s regulations as the problem because they do not match the eligibility standards set up by Congress.

“VA has had an active and ongoing dialogue about this with Swords to Plowshares since late last year when they asked us to formally review our regulations on this matter," explained VA Deputy Secretary Sloan D. Gibson, in a statement to Task & Purpose. "We have been working to assess the information and recommendations in the petition and to prepare the appropriate response, which is required by law for the formal request they gave us.”

In the GI Bill of Rights, officially called the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, Congress deemed that other-than-honorable discharges can only bar a veteran from basic VA services if the individual’s misconduct led to a dishonorable discharge in a court-martial due to serious crimes.

The report found that only 1% of service members discharged in 2011 would have been barred from VA services based on the criteria set up by Congress. However, the VA excluded 6.5% of all service members, 5.5% more than it needed to.

“This is affecting the veterans most at need,” Kevin Miller, a spokesperson for Swords to Plowshares, told Task & Purpose. “Two of the main VA initiatives are aimed at ending veteran homelessness and stopping veteran suicide, and those that have bad paper are at higher risk for both homelessness and suicide.”

Infographic via Swords to Plowshares

The VA’s approach to bad conduct discharges unfairly targets post-9/11 veterans, which leads them to being excluded from basic VA services at “unprecedented rates,” the report finds.

The increase in bad paper discharges comes down to the the growing number of other-than-honorable discharges, which are administrative discharges, unlike dishonorable and bad conduct discharges, which are punitive.

Infographic via Swords to Plowshares

According to the report, three out of four veterans with bad paper discharges who served in combat and have post-traumatic stress disorder are denied eligibility by the VA.

“We made a database of nearly one thousand VA decisions on this issue,” said Bradford Adams, staff attorney and manager of direct legal services at Swords to Plowshares in a press release. “The data shows that even if veterans served in hardship deployments, or if they experienced mental health trauma, VA consistently ignored these facts.”

Additionally, the report noted that this policy is not consistently applied. In 2013, VA regional offices denied eligibility to 90% of veterans with bad paper discharges. While the Boston regional office denied 69% of veterans with bad paper discharges, the Indianapolis regional office denied 100%.

Even when the department does investigate the character of discharges to determine if a veteran should be blocked from receiving benefits, the report found that it takes too long to complete, averaging three years or more.

“Under long-standing law and regulations, VA considers whether individuals with less than honorable discharges are eligible for VA benefits on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the reason for the discharge,” Gibson said. “I believe the report provides us as a department an opportunity to do a thorough review, take a fresh look this issue and make changes to help Veterans."

UPDATE: This article was updated to include a statement from VA Deputy Secretary Sloan D. Gibson (3/30/2016; 4:00 pm).

Conflict photographer Lynsey Addario's seen a hell of a lot of combat over the past twenty years. She patrolled Afghanistan's Helmand Province with the Marines, accompanied the Army on night raids in Baghdad, took artillery fire with rebel fighters in Libya and has taken photos in countless other wars and humanitarian disasters around the world.

Along the way, Addario captured images of plenty of women serving with pride in uniform, not only in the U.S. armed forces, but also on the battlefields of Syria, Colombia, South Sudan and Israel. Her photographs are the subject of a new article in the November 2019 special issue of National Geographic, "Women: A Century of Change," the magazine's first-ever edition written and photographed exclusively by women.

The photos showcase the wide range of goals and ideals for which these women took up arms. Addario's work includes captivating vignettes of a seasoned guerrilla fighter in the jungles of Colombia; a team of Israeli military police patrolling the streets of Jerusalem; and a unit of Kurdish women guarding ISIS refugees in Syria. Some fight to prove themselves, others seek to ignite social change in their home country, and others do it to liberate other women from the grip of ISIS.

Addario visited several active war zones for the piece, but she found herself shaken by something much closer to home: the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina.

Addario discussed her visit to boot camp and her other travels in an interview with Task & Purpose, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

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