Healing scarred vets

August 02, 1994|By Maxine Waters and Jonathan Shay

Washington -- AMERICAN involvement in Vietnam ended two decades ago, and the wounds suffered during the conflict are finally healing.

The nation has built memorials to our men and women who fought and died in the war. American companies are establishing business relationships in Hanoi. Hollywood continues to reinterpret how the war touched our national psyche.

There is, however, unfinished business.

More than 560,000 Vietnam-era veterans received less-than-honorable discharges for such offenses as being absent without leave, using or selling drugs or assaulting their superiors. A great number were in combat.

Because of their "bad paper," these veterans are not eligible for health and other benefits available to veterans with honorable discharges.

Many bad-paper veterans are among the 250,000 ex-combat soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They have a higher incidence of unemployment, violent behavior, alcohol and drug abuse, family problems and homelessness than other veterans.

Yet we won't give them the treatment that could help them heal. They served their country and deserve treatment for their war wounds, physical and mental.

Most soldiers discharged less than honorably committed their offenses after their combat duty. Many did so because of psychological injuries suffered in battle.

Some were also victims of racism. The rod of military justice did not fall with equal force on all offenders in Vietnam.

A Defense Department task force reported in 1972 that African-Americans received much harsher punishments than white offenders who committed offenses of comparable seriousness. A 1971 NAACP study found that 45 percent of all less-than-honorable discharges went to black soldiers.

Whatever the circumstances surrounding combat veterans' bad-paper discharges, it is self-defeating to deny them benefits. We don't save money by shutting them out. It costs taxpayers much more in unemployment compensation and support for prisons, homeless shelters, substance abuse treatment and emergency health care programs.

These ex-soldiers fill prisons and homeless shelters in disproportionate numbers around the country.

The New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, a 225-bed treatment center in Boston, is typical: 25 percent of those who use it are bad-paper combat veterans.

Under the current system, veterans can upgrade their hTC discharges only after a complicated, expensive case-by-case process during which the Department of Veterans Affairs and Military Review Board re-evaluate infractions that occurred more than 20 years ago.

It can take years to reach a result. But a prompt upgrade can mean the difference between addiction and employment, a life marked by despair and a future with hope.

Legislation is being prepared in consultation with veterans' groups that will establish a procedure for combat veterans to automatically upgrade their bad-paper discharges.

When it is introduced in the House next month, it will be a major step toward ensuring that those who risked their lives in battle are not abandoned to the streets, prisons and margins of our society.

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., is to sponsor a bill in the House to upgrade discharges for combat veterans. Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist, is author of "Achilles in Vietnam."

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