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Suit alleges Army wrongly discharged thousands

By: The Gazette and news services
April 18, 2017 Updated: April 18, 2017 at 7:06 am
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photo - FILE - Fort Carson soldiers are honored Wednesday, July 9, 2014, before the start of the first night of the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo at the Norris-Penrose Event Center in Colorado Springs. A federal lawsuit filed Monday alleges the U.S. Army has issued less-than-honorable discharges for potentially thousands of service members without adequately considering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
FILE - Fort Carson soldiers are honored Wednesday, July 9, 2014, before the start of the first night of the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo at the Norris-Penrose Event Center in Colorado Springs. A federal lawsuit filed Monday alleges the U.S. Army has issued less-than-honorable discharges for potentially thousands of service members without adequately considering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - A federal lawsuit filed Monday alleges the U.S. Army has issued less-than-honorable discharges for potentially thousands of service members without adequately considering the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions.

The plaintiffs, two Army veterans from Connecticut who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, say in the lawsuit that they were wrongly denied honorable discharges, a fate that can deny a wide array of veteran's benefits. The lawsuit filed in Connecticut by Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic is seeking class-action status.

It would be the first suit of its kind to address a problem identified in The Gazette's "Other Than Honorable" investigation, which found that dozens of Fort Carson soldiers suffering the mental wounds of war were given disciplinary discharges for minor misconduct that stripped them of their veterans benefits.

In the wake of the report, Congress mandated tighter reviews of other than honorable discharges. This year, Colorado federal lawmakers have pushed for the Department of Veterans Affairs to give all veterans mental health treatment regardless of discharge status.

An Army spokeswoman said the branch doesn't comment on pending litigation. The suit seeks redress with reviews of discharges rather than financial damage. The government is generally immune for civil suits seeking financial damages.

One of the plaintiffs, Steve Kennedy, said he developed PTSD and depression after fighting in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 and began abusing alcohol and cutting himself. After going absent-without-leave to attend his own wedding, he was diagnosed by the Army with depression, and he received a general discharge because he had left without permission, according to the lawsuit.

Kennedy was later diagnosed with PTSD by the VA, but his discharge status prevented him from receiving benefits including tax exemptions and scholarships that are open only to honorably discharged veterans, the lawsuit said.

"As my PTSD became impossible to manage on my own, my commander told me that the only way I could receive treatment was by leaving the Army with a bad paper discharge," said Kennedy, who is now pursuing a doctorate in biophysical chemistry. "Just like that, the Army wiped away years of distinguished service to my country and deemed it less than honorable."

The lawsuit targets the review boards that give veterans a chance to contest discharges that may have been unjustly harsh.

It is the first lawsuit to argue that the Army Discharge Review Boards are inconsistently following a requirement that they apply a liberal standard to considerations of veterans' claims alleging PTSD or related conditions, according to Mario Gazzola, a law student intern with the Yale clinic.

The Army stepped up its discharge reviews after the Gazette investigation that found that Army officers coerced mentally ill soldiers to accept other-than-honorable discharges after minor disciplinary incidents.

The Gazette's investigation earned the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

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Gazette Reporter Tom Roeder contributed to this report.

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