A Navy veteran in the Senate is calling on Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to break up the logjam delaying upgrades of so-called "bad paper discharges" for veterans with post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury.
In a letter to Austin citing a recent Military.com report on the issue, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., asked for a detailed accounting of how the Pentagon has responded to the law passed in 2017 calling for the service branches to speed up the review process for these discharges.
Other-than-honorable discharges can cut veterans off from a range of benefits, including the GI Bill and home loans.
"Expeditious review board decisions will give our brave men and women who are suffering from the invisible wounds of war an opportunity to access the benefits they have earned through their service," Peters said in the letter.
"A solution must be found so that transitioning service members as well as veterans have access to the support they need," said Peters, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former Navy Reserve lieutenant commander.
Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby had no immediate response to questions on whether Austin was addressing the issue, but said a written response was forthcoming.
"While I understand that the COVID-19 pandemic has added obstacles for veterans seeking to have their records corrected due to the backlog at the National Personnel Records Center, these delays and difficulties predate the current pandemic and are concerning," Peters said.
In 2017, Peters sponsored an amendment that passed into law with the National Defense Authorization Act requiring discharge review boards to give "liberal" consideration for upgrades to veterans who could show that they had been diagnosed with PTSD or TBI while in uniform.
Despite the law, the process has proven to be cumbersome and subject to lengthy delays, and is now the target of two class-action suits against the services to speed up the reviews.
"The long wait times need to be immediately addressed," Danica Gonzalves, program director for the Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that has been assisting veterans seeking upgrades.
Decisions can take more than three years, she said in a statement to Military.com, because of an "unconscionable backlog" of requests for necessary paperwork due to COVID-19 restrictions at the National Personnel Records Center.
The Center "is still not fully functional," Gonzalves said, and the veterans who could show they suffered from PTSD or TBI "cannot obtain the records they need to apply for a discharge review."
Stephen Jordon, executive director of the consortium and a retired Navy captain, said there was a special urgency to speeding up the process for aging veterans.
"There is nothing more heartbreaking than seeing a veteran that passes away with what would have been a successful discharge upgrade case still bogged down in the system," Jordon said.
Military.com last month interviewed several veterans who received other than honorable discharges although they had been diagnosed by the military with PTSD or TBI. They spoke of the benefits they have been denied, but also stressed the lifetime "stigma" they now feel they bear with a discharge status that essentially says their service did not count.
In his letter, Peters asked DoD to list the total number of discharge status upgrade requests received each year, the average length of time from submission to a decision, and the percentage of discharge upgrade petitions that are granted.
He also asked for details on what DoD was doing to streamline the review process and whether procedures would be standardized across the services on the reviews.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.