Thousands of Vietnam-era veterans barred from receiving benefits because of less-than-honorable discharges may be eligible for upgrades under a new set of guidelines released by the Defense Department on Wednesday.
The new rules offer the first guidance to military discharge review boards on how to address post-traumatic stress disorder. Many experts and veterans’ advocates assert that the disorder may have contributed to misconduct by veterans who were later kicked out of the military and stripped of benefits.
The guidelines call on the independent boards that review petitions from veterans seeking upgrades to give “liberal consideration” to any symptoms of PTSD now or at the time of the veterans’ discharge, and “special consideration” to findings of PTSD by the Veterans Affairs Department. In a statement, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the guidelines were intended to create “fair and consistent results in these difficult cases.”
“This is our responsibility and the right thing to do for veterans,” said Mr. Hagel, a former Army infantry sergeant who was wounded in Vietnam. “This new guidance reflects our commitment to those who served our country during times of war many decades ago.”
The announcement comes in the wake of a class-action lawsuit filed in federal court by a group of Vietnam veterans and the advocacy group Vietnam Veterans of America, alleging that the military systematically denied applications for upgrades involving PTSD.
The lawsuit estimated that 250,000 Vietnam-era veterans had received other-than-honorable discharges, and that up to 80,000 of them may have had PTSD.
“This is a long-overdue recognition for a wound of war that was denied for decades,” said Jennifer McTiernan, a Yale Law School student who helped file the suit as part of the school’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic.
The suit will still go forward, Ms. McTiernan said, because it is unclear how the new policy will be carried out. “We’re optimistic, but we’ve seen as far from ‘liberal’ as you can imagine,” she said.
Under the new rules, veterans applying for an upgrade will have to show that they had symptoms of PTSD at the time of their misconduct, that the PTSD was related to military service, and that it contributed to their less-than-honorable discharge. Veterans with so-called “bad paper” are ineligible for education, disability and housing benefits, and are sometimes barred from Veterans Affairs health care.
In the past, veterans say, review boards have been hesitant to upgrade discharges based on claims of PTSD.
Conley F. Monk Jr., one of the veterans named in the lawsuit, served in Vietnam in 1969 and came under enemy fire almost daily, he said. He was given an other-than-honorable discharge in 1971 for fighting and drug use that he said was caused by PTSD.
The same year, the Veterans Affairs Department denied him benefits, citing his discharge.
Though the department has long recognized PTSD’s contributions tosubstance abuse and other misconduct in veterans, Mr. Monk said the Naval Discharge Review Board that ruled on his case last month did not.
“I had two psychiatrists, one from Yale, one from the V.A., both saying what happened was PTSD,” Mr. Monk said. “The board just said the doctors didn’t know what they were talking about.”
The new guidelines urge boards to listen to doctors, but to “exercise caution” in cases of serious misconduct, especially any crimes involving premeditation.
It is unclear whether the guidelines will lead to an increase in upgrades. But if they do, it could mean a windfall for veterans long denied benefits. A spokeswoman for the department said those veterans would be eligible for benefits dating back to their first denied claim.
For Mr. Monk, that would be 1971.
“I just pray they give us a chance,” he said. “We deserved to be treated fairly, and it never happened.”
Correction: September 4, 2014
An earlier version of a headline on this article misstated which department is administering the new rules regarding benefits for Vietnam-era veterans. It is the Department of Defense, not the Veterans Affairs Department.