By Dave Philipps
February 19, 2016
WASHINGTON — Kristofer Goldsmith was discharged from the Army at the height of the Iraq war because he was not on a plane to Baghdad for his second deployment. Instead, he was in a hospital after attempting suicide the night before.
On the sergeant’s first deployment, his duties often required him to photograph mutilated corpses. After coming home, he was stalked by nightmares and despair. In 2007, he overdosed on pills, and his platoon found him passed out in a grove of trees at Fort Stewart, Ga., that had been planted to honor soldiers killed in combat.
Instead of screening Mr. Goldsmith for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, records show that the Army wrote him up for missing his flight, then forced him out of the military with a less-than-honorable discharge. When he petitioned the Army to upgrade his discharge, arguing that he missed his flight because of undiagnosed PTSD, it rejected his appeal.
In the years since, he has appealed twice more for an honorable discharge and has been denied both times.
“To say it’s an uphill battle is an understatement,” Mr. Goldsmith, 30, said recently as he walked down the hall of a Senate office building where he was trying to get lawmakers to listen to his plight. “I’ve been fighting for eight years, and I can’t get anywhere.”
Many who have tried to upgrade their discharges have received the same response. Records show that the Army Review Boards Agency — the office with legal authority “to correct an error or remove an injustice” in military records — has rejected a vast majority of cases that involve PTSD in recent years.
Since 2001, more than 300,000 people, about 13 percent of all troops, have been forced out of the military with less-than-honorable discharges. Congress has recognized in recent years that some of these discharges were the fault of dysfunctional screening for PTSD and other combat injuries, and it has put safeguards in place to prevent more — including requirements for mental health professionals to review all discharges. In recent years, less than honorable discharges have dropped drastically; and today, troops with PTSD are more likely to be medically discharged with benefits. But that has done little to help those like Mr. Goldsmith who were discharged before the changes.
Now, Mr. Goldsmith and a small group of veterans are pushing for a bill in Congress that would overhaul the system by mandating that the military give veterans the benefit of the doubt, requiring the boards to decide cases starting from the presumption that PTSD materially contributed to the discharges.
“We put out an unprecedented number of troops for minor infractions, and I believe a lot of them were suffering from PTSD,” said Representative Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican and Iraq veteran. Mr. Coffman said he planned to introduce legislation this month that would shift the burden of proof about PTSD from veterans to the military.
Congress created military review boards after World War II to correct wartime missteps, but observers say this has rarely happened in recent years. In 2013, the Army Board for Correction of Military Records, the supreme authority in the Army’s review agency, ruled against veterans in about 96 percent of PTSD-related cases, according to an analysis done by Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic.
“The boards are broken,” said Michael Wishnie, a Yale professor who oversees the clinic. “They are not functioning the way Congress has intended.”
He added that the boards’ decision-making process is often opaque, and that they have done little to educate veterans on the upgrade process.
The Army Review Boards Agency did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In an attempt at a solution in 2014, the secretary of defense at the time, Chuck Hagel, instructed the boards to give “liberal consideration” to all veterans seeking an upgrade of their discharge because of PTSD. Since then, rulings in favor of veterans at the Army Board for Correction of Military Records have surged to 45 percent from 4 percent, according to records.
But veterans say a more lasting remedy is needed. They point out that Mr. Hagel’s order could easily be reversed by the next president, and it does little to address the boards’ underlying problems.
Observers say the boards are overwhelmed. And, despite a growing caseload from Iraq and Afghanistan, the staff at the Army Review Boards Agency has steadily shrunk. In 2014, it had 135 employees to process 22,500 cases, according to an agency briefing.
The panels that review discharges often have only four or five minutes to look over cases that may be hundreds of pages thick, Mr. Wishnie said.
“There is a sense they are rubber-stamping cases and not taking time to reach a just decision,” he added.
Many veterans say they feel the boards give little credence to the medical evidence presented to them. Two months after he left the Army, Mr. Goldsmith was told he had PTSD at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital. But denial letters from the Army Review Boards Agency said it was unclear whether the PTSD stemmed from his service in the military.
“They start from the assumption that the Army made the right decision, and unless you can definitively prove otherwise, you are out of luck,” Mr. Goldsmith said.
Veterans with less-than-honorable discharges lose education benefits, preferential hiring and tax breaks, and they can be barred from the veterans’ heath care system. They can also face a lifelong stigma.
Thomas Burke, 26, joined Mr. Goldsmith on his recent advocacy trip to Washington. Now a student at Yale Divinity School, in 2009 he was a Marine infantryman in Afghanistan, his second combat deployment in a year.
As he waited in a reception area to meet with a senator, he showed a picture on his phone of himself on patrol in Helmand Province: He was unshaven, with a dusty rifle in his hands, and 15 smiling Afghan boys were tagging behind him.
“These kids went everywhere with us; these are my kids,” he said. He smiled, lost in thought, then added, “I loved them.”
A few weeks after the photograph was taken, many of the boys were killed by an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade they found near their village. Mr. Burke and his squad were left to haul away the dismembered bodies.
Mr. Burke said he started smoking hash he bought from Afghans as an escape from stress and emotional exhaustion.
“The whole platoon pretty much did,” he said. “It was the only way we could get any sleep.” Another member of his platoon confirmed his account.
Mr. Burke was charged with misconduct for his drug use and was told he would be kicked out of the Marines. He tried to kill himself a few weeks later. “I though I could join the military and make the world a better place, and I had failed in every way,” he said. “I was so angry at God and so sad.”
The Marine Corps locked him in a psychiatric hospital, he said, and then gave him an other-than-honorable discharge without evaluating him for PTSD.
Soon after, he was told at a veterans’ hospital that he had PTSD. He applied for an honorable discharge in 2014 but was denied.
“I’m at Yale. I’m doing O.K. I’m not doing this for me, but there are thousands of others who really need a chance,” he said. “People were self-medicating or messed up from combat, and the military, in effect, criminalized mental illness.”