Why some who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan can’t get VA medical care

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Since 9-11, tens of thousands of soldiers and marines have seen combat. Now it’s estimated at least 125,000 of them are not eligible to receive any benefits from the Veterans Administration (VA) because they received dishonorable discharges.

“Most people live under the assumption that every veteran is able to get healthcare at the VA. And the truth is that these veterans with less than honorable discharges are prohibited from getting any access,” says Kristofer Goldsmith, a vet who fought in Iraq who now advocates for other veterans.

One of those trying to get healthcare is Michael Coleman. I talked with Michael and his mom Jo awhile back. Michael was in bad shape and had just attempted suicide. He says he was diagnosed with PTSD but drummed out of the Army back in 2004 after serving in Iraq in 2003. “They gave me a bad conduct discharge and released me from the Army,” he told me. “I have tried going to the VA and telling them I have PTSD but they say until my discharge is upgraded, they can’t do anything for me.”

Recently, at the opening of a VA clinic in Savannah, I spoke to George Canavaggio, who is the assistant commissioner of the Georgia Department of Veterans Services. He says there are options for those like Coleman. “”We tell the vet if they do have bad paper – what forms to fill out to get their discharge upgraded. But it comes down to the fact that some people – get the upgrade because the offense they committed doesn’t warrant it.”

Jo Coleman says her son was acting out because of his stress and other symptoms of PTSD and that led to bad conduct which led to him leaving the military. She has spent a decade trying to get her son treatment but says she doesn’t have the financial resources for his continuing care. “My son is more important than anything else right now and getting him the kind of help that he needs is a priority and I will not stop until somebody hears this story and helps me. I am exhausted trying to do this by myself,” she told me.

Goldsmith says many soldiers and marines drummed out of the military may be able to trace bad conduct (that led to their dishonorable discharge) back to a brain injury or PTSD. But he says that was not often recognized in the early days of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Prior to 2009, there was no DOD requirement to review the mental health of a veteran of a combat vet before they received a less than honorable discharge,” he said.

Goldsmith believes the appeal process set up for those like Coleman is stacked against the veteran. “They’re facing things like homelessness, they’re facing things like untreated mental and physical wounds of war and to put the onus on the veteran to prove their honorable service especially those vets who already have a clear diagnosis of PTSD from their time in service – I think is completely unfair,” he said.

Goldsmith says a number of veterans groups are supporting The Fairness for Veterans Act, which he says would provide veterans with more leverage in an appeal and take some of the burden of proof from them and put it on the government. In other words, the vet would not have to prove he deserves benefits as much as the DOD and VA would have to prove he does not.

Goldsmith says it’s an issue he hopes more Americans will learn about. “I don’t believe that most people would want someone with PTSD from a combat injury not to receive medical care,” he says.

Michael Coleman is doing “okay” now according to him mom. But she worries about tomorrow and the next day.

Unfortunately, Goldsmith says those worries are well founded. “Those with bad discharges are most likely to die by suicide after fighting the system for so long to get care. And after being denied over and over, they just give up,” he told me.

Goldsmith and Mrs. Coleman are asking people to learn more about the topic by watching the documentary Charlie Foxtrot which is now online.

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