Fairfield veteran sues to upgrade thousands of Army discharges
Updated 3:08 pm, Monday, April 17, 2017
A Connecticut veterans’ leader Monday filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of Army veterans nationwide who, like him, were given less than honorable discharges for behaviors later attributed to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Stephen Kennedy of Fairfield, a lead plaintiff, is a decorated Army veteran and a founder of the state chapter of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. In the suit, he claims the Army isn’t following a Pentagon policy to make it easier for veterans with PTSD to upgrade their discharge statuses.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport, is asking the court to order the Army to properly apply the policy. Issued by former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the policy directs military review boards to give “liberal consideration” to veterans whose service-connected PTSD is diagnosed after discharge. A second plaintiff, Alicia J. Carson, a former Connecticut resident who was in the National Guard and now lives in Alaska, is also named in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit potentially affects thousands of veterans with General Under Honorable and Other Than Honorable discharge statuses, said Helen White, a student in the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic, which is representing the plaintiffs. The class of plaintiffs encompasses Army veterans discharged since April 2002.
At a morning news conference at Yale, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal supported the lawsuit. “The DOD has failed to provide the relief that the law provides… failed to provide the consistent standard,” he said . “This lawsuit should not be necessary.”
He noted that the lawsuit does not seek any money, “just basic justice.”
Benefits of an upgrade
For those like Kennedy with general discharges, an upgrade would allow them to re-enter the Army, and make them eligible for education benefits under the federal G.I. bill as well as perks, like scholarships given by veterans’ groups. Kennedy, a doctoral student, estimates he has lost out on $90,000 in G.I. education aid.
Those with less-than-honorable discharges would become eligible for federal and state veterans’ benefits, such as health care and disability benefits from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and state property tax exemptions, which many can’t get now.
According to U.S. Department of Defense statistics obtained by the Harvard Law School Veterans Legal Clinic, 81,997 enlisted members of the Army received general under honorable discharges from 2002 through 2013, the most recent years available. Another 32,973 received Other Than Honorable discharges in that period.
Kennedy, 31, filed a lawsuit in December on his own behalf asking for a court-ordered discharge upgrade, which he is still seeking. The class action is an amended version of that lawsuit.
He has tried twice for an upgrade, first in 2009 when he was still battling mental illness. “The process is a huge burden to put on anybody. If you’re having mental health difficulties, it’s impossible,” he said.
Kennedy joined the Army after two years at Boston University. He was given leadership posts, fast-tracked to become a sergeant and awarded the prestigious Army Achievement Medal.
His mental health problems emerged after he returned from Iraq to Fort Bragg, N.C. He performed well at work during the day. But at night, he drank and smoked heavily. He became suicidal, and habitually cut himself. “I was really a mess,” he said.
Long journey back
He got into trouble in 2009 after he left his base without permission for his wedding and honeymoon, an act he attributes to PTSD. He said he had received verbal approval from superiors a year before, but a new officer refused him, saying he needed written authorization. Kennedy, who grew up in Monroe, said if he had been well, he would have appealed the refusal. Instead, he avoided the situation, a behavior consistent with PTSD, he said.
After his wedding, he returned to his base and was diagnosed with depressive disorder, demoted, docked two months pay, and transferred to a different company. He was discharged after an Army psychiatrist told him the base didn’t have the resources to treat him. He spent years seeing psychiatrists and taking medications. He was diagnosed with PTSD by private and VA doctors.
In 2015, feeling well and his life on track, he applied again to the Army Discharge Review Board for an upgrade and was turned down in a 3-2 vote.
“What makes his case so compelling is he did everything he was supposed to do in a discharge upgrade proceeding — letters from therapists, evidence of honorable service, and a personal statement explaining the link between his PTSD and his AWOL,” White said. “If he can’t be successful, it’s extremely unlikely that other veterans are getting proper adjudications from the board.”
In response to Kennedy’s initial suit, the Army asked the court to either dismiss the case on the basis that a military personnel issue shouldn’t be decided in a civil court, or to remand it back to the Army, where Kennedy could file again for an upgrade. In a court brief, the Army said it lost four documents that Kennedy submitted in his 2015 upgrade hearing.
The Army said Kennedy didn’t exhaust all potential military options because he didn’t apply to a second board, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records.
Kennedy is pursuing a doctorate in biophysical chemistry at New York University. He and his wife, Catherine, have two children. As a leader of the state chapter of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, he advocates for state and federal veterans’ legislation. Until recently, he never talked about his discharge status because he was embarrassed, he said.