A study centered on veterans with “other-than-honorable” discharges reveals that they are routinely denied health care benefits – even if they’re potentially eligible.
Many military veterans need help with medical issues after their service career ends. For that treatment, they can go to a medical center operated by the Department of Veterans Affairs, or VA.
But a study released Thursday by the Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School alleged that some are being turned away from local VAs without treatment to which they have a right.
One of the people mentioned in the report is from Connecticut.
“It kind of gets you down,” Robert Morales said.
Morales told Connecticut Public Radio that he was sexually abused in the Marine Corps. He was only 20 when he left service in 1971 with what he said was an “undesirable” discharge. In 2019, 48 years after his discharge, he said he sought help for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But he said he was denied treatment at the West Haven VA Medical Center.
“They said, ‘No – if you don’t have an honorable discharge, we can’t take you in,’ ” Morales said
He blamed his discharge on the sexual abuse, saying as a result of that trauma, he often went AWOL.
“I couldn’t deal with it. I couldn’t send my clothes – my uniforms – to the laundry or anything,” Morales said. “I couldn’t eat maybe a sandwich or a hamburger like everybody else or a soda. It bothered me a lot.”
Morales didn’t report his abuse after it happened. He said he’d already been punished for smoking after hours, so he was worried about being put on leave again.
Chelsea Donaldson, Morales’ attorney, said the kind of trauma her client – and others like him – experienced during his time in the Marines can lead to a nightmarish end to active duty.
“Unfortunately, their trauma resulted in acts of misconduct because they couldn’t cope, because they had no way to deal with what happened to them,” Donaldson said.
“These acts of misconduct – even if they’re minor acts of misconduct – can result in this drastic impact on a veterans’ life in the form of a discharge that they’ve received,” she said.
As Morales tried to seek help for his mental illness, he brought Donaldson with him after initially being denied in West Haven. He was finally able to get treatment, but only after Donaldson was able to demonstrate that he was a military sexual trauma survivor who was eligible for care – no matter what his discharge status was – because of a federal statute called the Honor Our Commitment Act.
“Being able to access the VA and the mental health treatments that they provide has given him such a sense of belonging that he is a veteran, despite what it says on his discharge papers,” Donaldson said.
“More importantly has given him access to a doctor that can help treat his mental illness rather than have him hide it away because he feels shame about his discharge status.”
A spokesperson with the VA Connecticut Healthcare System that oversees the West Haven VA said it has increased retraining efforts since it found out “a veteran who met criteria was denied the opportunity to enroll for care.”
“Eligible veterans with other-than-honorable discharges who are entitled to certain benefits who encounter issues enrolling or receiving care at one of our locations should ask to speak to a supervisor, nurse manager (community clinic) or Patient Advocate (West Haven or Newington campus) for assistance,” said Pamela R. Redmond in a statement issued on behalf of the VA Connecticut Healthcare System.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) used the Harvard study to renew his call for VAs to comply with the Honor Our Commitment Act.
“It should be simple: if you put your life on the line for the United States, we’re supposed to have your back when you return home,” Murphy said in a statement. “I will continue to insist the VA notify Other Than Honorable veterans of their new eligibility for care and demand the Department is fully complying with the law.”
Researchers in the Harvard study say that nearly 400,000 veterans are currently at risk of being turned away from local VAs around the country.
In response to the report, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs told Connecticut Public Radio it's done more work in recent years to reach out to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges.
“Further, VA is standardizing enrollment across the department by updating the enrollment system to include identification and tracking of other-than-honorable former service members eligible for care,” said Christina Mandreucci, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The researchers’ concern over veterans like Morales comes from a 2019 American Journal of Preventative Medicine research article that found veterans in need of mental health services have an increased rate of suicidal ideation.
“Accessing essential mental health treatment that the VA can provide and legally has to provide these people who have served their country, regardless of their discharge status, and to not do it can absolutely have a drastic effect on these individuals’ ability to survive on the day-to-day,” said Donaldson, who works for the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.
Donaldson said that Morales isn’t alone. She said she’s had three clients turned away from Connecticut VA medical centers within the past four months.
To avoid turning away potentially eligible veterans, Donaldson recommends VA employees ask questions of veterans seeking care to try and learn more about their eligibility.
Morales said he hopes the study leads to veterans getting the kind of help he’s finally getting.
“I guess I’m getting better – I don’t know,” Morales said. “I guess I’m beginning to see the light—the light after that tunnel.”