Two Connecticut war veterans are supporting a bill that would provide access to mental health services for those receiving other-than-honorable discharges. They called on Congress to pass the Honor Our Commitment Act, a bill introduced by Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy and co-sponsored by Senator Richard Blumenthal and seven other senators.
Service members with other-than-honorable, or "bad paper" discharges lose benefits such as the GI bill for school. But they’re also barred from getting VA health care for illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder, which is often the cause of their other-than-honorable discharge.
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Thomas Burke is one of them. He became suicidal after a group of children was killed in Afghanistan by a rocket-propelled grenade. In 2007, Burke was given an other-than-honorable discharge after developing PTSD and using drugs.
"When we got home in May, I was charged with smoking marijuana in Afghanistan," Burke said. "When I finally was allowed to see a psychiatrist, they prescribed me Remeron, which caused me to become manic and seek out destructive behaviors. After sitting in a barracks room in Hawaii without supervision for a month, letting my dark thoughts simmer alone, I broke."
After some help, Burke ultimately received VA disability and mental health services. He's now a veterans advocate and president of the Yale Student Veterans Council.
U.S. Army veteran and team leader of the Connecticut chapter of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Steve Kennedy also suffered from PTSD and depression. He told reporters the stakes are incredibly high.
"When veterans are suffering and either self-medicating, or lashing out, or going AWOL, or engaging in other high-risk behaviors, they need treatment and support," explained Kennedy. "Veterans with OTH discharges commit suicide at three times the rate of other veterans."
Lawmakers estimate 22,000 veterans with mental illnesses have received other-than-honorable discharges since 2009. And while VA Secretary David Shulkin has not specifically endorsed the Honor Our Commitment Act, he has called for an immediate increase in mental health services for at-risk veterans.
The Yale Veterans Legal Clinic says between 800 and 1,000 veterans in Connecticut have been denied benefits because of PTSD and mental health issues dating back to the Vietnam generation.
The bill, which is now before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, does not cover dishonorable discharges.