The process for upgrading so-called “bad paper” discharges could get a speed boost while a Pentagon program that helps transitioning service members work as teachers could be restored if some veteran groups and lawmakers have their way.
Advocates are pushing to include the changes in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), currently awaiting action on Capitol Hill.
On Nov. 9, Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and Steve Daines, R-Mont., offered an amendment to the proposed $740 billion-plus NDAA to reduce the growing backlog of discharge upgrade reviews for veterans diagnosed with post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.
Other than honorable discharges can render service members ineligible for a range of Department of Veterans Affairs benefits, including mental health treatment, GI Bill education benefits and VA home loans. Service members without an honorable discharge also are often at a disadvantage in seeking employment.
The backlog of petitions for discharge upgrades before military service review boards has continued to grow despite a 2016 law that ordered the services to give “liberal consideration" to upgrades to service members diagnosed with PTSD or TBI who received "other than honorable" discharges.
In a press release, Peters charged that foot-dragging by the Defense Department and inconsistent review processes used by the military services are causing those delays.
As an example, Peters said that the Naval Discharge Review Board in 2015 took an average of five months to reach a decision on a petition, but by 2020, it took 21 months. He added that "no veteran suffering from PTSD or TBI should lose access to the benefits they've earned."
Much of the delay can be attributed to the logjam at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, part of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), on requests for records to support claims on disability, health care and other benefits, as well as the documentation needed to support discharge upgrade petitions.
In an Oct. 4 letter to the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, David Ferriero, the head of NARA, said that “the backlog of public requests stands at over 550,000” at the NPRC but did not give a breakdown on how many of those requests involved discharge upgrades.
The amendment proposed by Peters and Daines would set up an "Interagency Discharge Review Board Task Force" to recommend ways of speeding up the review process. It would also require the service review boards to notify petitioners within 30 days on whether their case has been accepted for review or rejected.
In the struggle to pass the NDAA, the discharge upgrade proposal would have to be approved by the Senate for inclusion in the overall bill, and the Senate version would then have to be reconciled with the House version.
Meanwhile, the American Legion and other veteran organizations also called for revival of the Troops to Teachers program, which was allowed to sunset Sept. 30.
Rolled out in 1994, the program provided transitioning service members and veterans seeking careers in education up to $10,000 and help earning state teacher certificates. It was originally administered by the Department of Education but was transferred to the Pentagon in 2013.
The program has put more than 23,000 veterans into classrooms nationwide. Pentagon officials announced early this year that the program would be allowed to expire and its $15 million in annual funding reallocated to support the National Defense Strategy aimed at countering China and Russia. Service members and veterans interested in teaching were directed to programs within the Department of Education.
The American Legion said in a release that allowing that program to expire was "bad for students, veterans and the country." And in a letter last month to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans and other groups urged Congress to restart the program within DoD.
"Studies have shown that Troops to Teachers educators fill thousands of vacancies in high-needs schools and subject areas," and "even have a positive effect on increasing student likelihood to serve," the letter said.
In an interview, John Kamin, legislative director for the American Legion, said DoD had taken a "myopic view" in allowing the expiration of a program that was beneficial to veterans and to students, adding that "it doesn't make sense on a cost level."
Retired Navy Senior Chief Jon Altman, who went through the Troops to Teachers program and now is teaching in Phoenix, said: "We're better prepared from the military to go into the classrooms. We're trained to stick with the mission. We're fulfilling a need.
"Someone should look at this and kick somebody in the butt," Altman said. "This is a good program. There's a need for us" in the education system, and "I think we bring something to the table.”
Revival of that program has been approved by the Senate.
Congress early this month failed to pass the NDAA for fiscal year 2022, which began in October, on time as both the House and Senate were consumed by bitter infighting over President Joe Biden's huge spending proposals on infrastructure, social programs and efforts to fight climate change.
The failure of timely passage of the NDAA was the 12th time in 13 years that Congress could not agree on a final version of the defense policy bill by the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year, according to the Government Accountability Office. The result was yet another continuing resolution (CR) that forced DoD to keep spending at 2021 levels, set to expire on Dec. 3.
The Troops to Teachers and discharge upgrades proposals were among more than 700 amendments to the NDAA and faced long odds of surviving in the race to get agreement on a bill between the House and Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., succeeded Wednesday in getting an 84-15 vote to begin floor debate on the NDAA, but only after agreeing to delink the NDAA from a separate measure aimed at improving U.S. ability to compete with China.
In a floor speech Thursday, Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, acknowledged rumors that the House-Senate impasse could result in a year-long continuing resolution on the NDAA and warned of the dangers of keeping DoD spending at 2021 levels.
Reed said his own estimate of the impact of a CR that dragged on for a year was that the Defense Department "would lose $36 billion, and the consequences of that will be staggering."
At a Pentagon news conference Wednesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said "we're saddled with last year's budget" under the CR and as a result "can't create any new starts" on the technology upgrades and programs vital to maintain the U.S. edge over China and Russia.
Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.