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).

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Marine Maj. Jose J. Anzaldua Jr. spent more than three years as a prisoner of war during the height of the Vietnam War. Now, more than 45 years after his release, Sig Sauer is paying tribute to his service with a special gift.

Sig Sauer on Friday unveiled a unique 1911 pistol engraved with Anzaldua's name, the details of his imprisonment in Vietnam, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" accompanied by the POW-MIA flag on the grip to commemorate POW-MIA Recognition Day.

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Marine Maj. Jose Anzaldua's commemorative 1911 pistol

(Sig Sauer)

Born in Texas in 1950, Anzaldua enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968 and deployed to Vietnam as an intelligence scout assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division.

On Jan. 23, 1970, he was captured during a foot patrol and spent 1,160 days in captivity in various locations across North Vietnam — including he infamous Hỏa Lò Prison known among American POWs as the "Hanoi Hilton" — before he was freed during Operation Homecoming on March 27, 1973.

Anzaldua may have been a prisoner, but he never stopped fighting. After his release, he received two Bronze Stars with combat "V" valor devices and a Prisoner of War Medal for displaying "extraordinary leadership and devotion to his companions" during his time in captivity. From one of his Bronze Star citations:

Using his knowledge of the Vietnamese language, he was diligent, resourceful, and invaluable as a collector of intelligence information for the senior officer interned in the prison camp.

In addition, while performing as interpreter for other United States prisoners making known their needs to their captors, [Anzaldua] regularly, at the grave risk of sever retaliation to himself, delivered and received messages for the senior officer.

On one occasion, when detected, he refused to implicate any of his fellow prisoners, even though severe punitive action was expected.

Anzaldua also received a Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroism in December 1969, when he entered the flaming wreckage of a U.S. helicopter that crashed nearr his battalion command post in the country's Quang Nam Province and rescued the crew chief and a Vietnamese civilian "although painfully burned himself," according to his citation.

After a brief stay at Camp Pendleton following his 1973 release, Anzaldua attended Officer Candidate School at MCB Quantico, Virginia, earning his commission in 1974. He retired from the Corps in 1992 after 24 years of service.

Sig Sauer presented the commemorative 1911 pistol to Anzaldua in a private ceremony at the gunmaker's headquarters in Newington, New Hampshire. The pistol's unique features include:

  • 1911 Pistol: the 1911 pistol was carried by U.S. forces throughout the Vietnam War, and by Major Anzaldua throughout his service. The commemorative 1911 POW pistol features a high-polish DLC finish on both the frame and slide, and is chambered in.45 AUTO with an SAO trigger. All pistol engravings are done in 24k gold;
  • Right Slide Engraving: the Prisoner of War ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor and "Major Jose Anzaldua" engravings;
  • Top Slide Engraving: engraved oak leaf insignia representing the Major's rank at the time of retirement and a pair of dog tags inscribed with the date, latitude and longitude of the location where Major Anzaldua was taken as a prisoner, and the phrase "You Are Not Forgotten" taken from the POW-MIA flag;
  • Left Side Engraving: the Vietnam War service ribbon inset, with USMC Eagle Globe and Anchor engraving;
  • Pistol Grips: anodized aluminum grips with POW-MIA flag.

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