`Bad paper' vets -- America's discarded warriors

`BAD paper'' vets will not be honored on Veterans Day. They carry discharges that read ``Other Than Honorable,'' ``Bad Conduct,'' and ``Undesirable.'' Although most deserved their dishonorable discharges, some did not, and others are now rehabilitated. As a veterans counselor for over eight years, I have met many veterans with bad papers who I believe deserve a better deal. Many of them desperately need veterans' benefits now denied them, including medical care and drug rehabilitation.

For example, many Vietnam veterans were discharged for drug abuse. Drugs were so commonplace in Vietnam it was impossible to catch and punish everyone using them. Those who were caught, whether for smoking only marijuana or for selling, using, or pushing hard drugs, by and large received the same punishment -- a discharge that labels them drug abusers for the rest of their lives.

Why did they do it? ``Drugs were so cheap,'' some say -- ``too good a bargain to pass up.'' Or:

``Everyone was using drugs and I had to be cool and go along.'' Childish? Yes, but these were virtually children. Many graduated from high school one day, entered service the next, and were in Vietnam a few months later.

``I got these medals while I was stoned,'' one man told me. Drugs made it easier for him and his buddies to be brave. His medals were not taken away, but they mean little because of the ``bad paper'' discharge for drug use.

Many veterans no longer use drugs. They stopped when they got home, or kicked the habit. Now they would like to get on with their lives, but are trapped by discharges that not only bar them from Veterans Administration benefits, but follow them when they go job hunting.

Walk through skid row in any city and you'll find the veterans who are still addicted. Many are also mentally disturbed. They should be receiving VA care, but chances are they are not eligible. To have a discharge changed they must prove error, and usually there is no error, just a permanently damaged ex-soldier.

Drugs are not the only reason for bad discharges. Consider the case of the man who went out on patrol one day and saw something move in the grass. He emptied his rifle and went over to check the target. It was a child, and after that he could not force himself to go out on patrol. ``Failure to obey,'' his papers read.

Homosexuals no longer get bad-paper discharges, but they did in World War II and the Korean war. Once identified as homosexual -- sometimes with very little proof -- they were instantly stripped of their rank and ordered off the base or ship within 24 hours.

I have assisted many of these veterans in attempting to upgrade their discharges. The government is willing to upgrade in some cases, especially if homosexuality is proved the sole reason for discharge. Unfortunately, proof is not easily available. Records get lost and reasons are often hidden by such vague statements as ``for the good of the service.''

Those with bad-paper discharges for alcoholism - now recognized as a disease - can now have them upgraded. Again, proof is often hard to come by. The alcoholics from earlier wars are seldom in any shape to mount much of a defense. A large number are homeless drifters who never stopped drinking after service. Even if found, their records don't always mention their drinking problem. Unlike other drugs, alcohol is openly sold on military bases and so its effects are played down.

In some instances, veterans' counselors have been successful in upgrading discharges due to blatant racial discrimination. It's almost impossible, however, to prove prejudice. In World War II, minority servicemen were often punished for standing up for the very rights they were fighting to preserve.

These ``bad paper'' veterans have been largely forgotten and ignored by the military and veterans organizations. More publicity is needed to alert them to the fact that they can appeal their discharges. Veterans who served bravely and well in combat before something went wrong may deserve special consideration. So should those with otherwise unblemished records.

Those men who became addicted to drugs in service deserve VA benefits for hospitalization and outpatient care. Most cannot afford to seek help elsewhere, and most need help desperately. Others, punished for marijuana use only, should also have their records reviewed. Marijuana use is illegal, but huge numbers of people have used it without being labeled drug abusers for the rest of their lives.

Finally, it should be illegal for employers to ask prospective employees what type of discharge they received in service. They should not have the right to demand to see discharge papers, except in selected cases such as government security.

Many veterans have turned themselves around since their service days and are now good citizens, husbands, and fathers. They deserve to be judged for what they now are, not for something that happened 10, 20, and 30 some years ago.

I, along with other Americans, will observe a minute of silence on Veterans Day, to honor those who served our country well and faithfully. I will also remember the others -- the ``bad paper'' vets whose stories I cannot -- and will not -- forget.

L.P. Harvey is a caseworker with the American Red Cross Service to Military Families and Veterans.

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