Yale Law Students Raise Case For Discharged Vets

Before PTSD existed as a diagnosis, Vietnam War veterans who suffered from it often received a discharge other than honorable. A Yale Law School clinic is filing a class action lawsuit for them.

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In the U.S., posttraumatic stress disorder or PTSD has become part of our national vocabulary. During the Vietnam War, though, it wasn't yet a medical diagnosis, nor was it accepted as an explanation for erratic behavior. Today, a number of Vietnam veterans filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the tens of thousands of Vietnam vets they say got kicked out of the military because of problems related to PTSD.

NPR's Quil Lawrence reports their suit aims to get these veterans the benefits they missed out on for decades.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: In 1968, Conley Monk joined the Marines and wound up driving supply convoys through firefights in Vietnam.

CONLEY MONK: From the very beginning, you know, it was a nightmare.

LAWRENCE: Monk says the experience scarred him, made him a different person. Before he even got home, he was in trouble. He punched his sergeant. He got involved in drugs. The Marines gave him an undesirable discharge.

MONK: That's a lifetime scar. And when they give you a bad discharge, now that prohibits you from being able to get jobs. You can't even get any housing through the VA.

LAWRENCE: When Monk got home to New Haven, Connecticut, he says he couldn't even get a job washing dishes. His drug problems got worse. He counts himself lucky that his family got him into treatment, and he later got work as a drug counselor. But with the bad discharge, he spent decades without VA health care, could never go school on the GI Bill.

MONK: You're excluded from a lot of different things that would make you a better person.

LAWRENCE: PTSD is now recognized as a combat injury, but that hasn't helped Monk, who is part of a class action lawsuit filed in federal court today. Michael Wishnie advises the Yale veterans' law clinic, which organized the suit.

MICHAEL WISHNIE: As a society having come to recognize and for decades to diagnose and treat PTSD, it's unconscionable that we would fail to go back and correct the records of tens of thousands of veterans.

LAWRENCE: Wishnie says when Vietnam veterans with PTSD have tried individually to get their discharges reviewed by the military, they get turned down 95 out of 100 times. The Pentagon declined to comment on pending litigation. Along with Conley Monk, four other Vietnam vets are leading the suit, but Wishnie says time is running out for the Vietnam generation.

WISHNIE: What we're really talking about is a population of men and women generally in their mid- to late-60s who've been suffering with untreated, undiagnosed PTSD for decades, who've been denied VA benefits in many cases because of this status and whose life expectancy, unfortunately at this point, is not that long.

LAWRENCE: Wishnie says the law suit is about restoring honor and maybe heath care and a roof overhead for tens of thousands of veterans for the last years of their lives. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

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