STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This week, we bring you stories of veterans who served their country, but not always honorably. More than 100,000 over the past decade were discharged for misconduct. Many committed crimes or used drugs. They may pay a steep price since they are blocked by law from VA health benefits, and more.
On one level, that just seems obvious - they broke the rules. But then there's the question of why they broke the rules. Many link their conduct to combat trauma, saying they misbehaved because of the extreme conditions of their service; which raises the question of whether we, as a nation, owe these veterans something after all. Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Eric Highfill spent five years in the Navy, fixing airplanes for special operations forces. His discharge shows an Iraq campaign medal, an Afghanistan campaign medal, a good conduct medal; that he's marksman with a pistol, and sharpshooter with a rifle.
ERIC HIGHFILL: I had deployed somewhere between nine and 11 times; six to eight weeks out, four to six weeks back. And it was a heavy rotation like that for a good three years.
LAWRENCE: None of that matters because at the bottom, the paper reads "Discharged under other-than-honorable conditions." Highfill says he got addicted to the painkillers he was taking for a knee injury. In the Navy's eyes, Highfill screwed up. He got a DUI, among other things, and so they kicked him out. And that means when he went to a VA medical center in Michigan, they did the same.
HIGHFILL: I went down to the Battle Creek VA. I had spoken with the receptionist. And she looked at my discharge and said, well, you have a bad discharge. And they turned me away.
LAWRENCE: The VA confirmed Highfill's visit, and claimed he was offered information on how to appeal his status. The VA can do its own evaluation of a veteran's service before making a decision to accept or reject a vet with so-called bad paper.
Eric Highfill's story is consistent with dozens of other veterans interviewed for this series.Many veterans with bad paper argue that their conduct was the result of post-traumatic stress disorder - PTSD - or traumatic brain injury - TBI. An Air Force veteran, Maj. Brendan Bailey, remembers the moment when his 10-year career crashed.
BRENDAN BAILEY: We had just loaded up...
LAWRENCE: Bailey worked as a flight nurse, evacuating wounded troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, until one very bad flight in October of 2008.
BAILEY: There was incoming fire. The aircraft was taxiing.
LAWRENCE: It was dark. There were incoming rockets, and too many wounded. Bailey was strapping down the patients as the plane took off.
BAILEY: Then suddenly, the aircraft banked and changed altitude so hard that I flew across the cabin, hit my head on a side wall.
LAWRENCE: He says he saw stars for a bit, then he shook it off and went back to the wounded. But he wasn't the same after that blow to the head.
BAILEY: A couple days later, I was depressed. I got into a couple of fights. I was yelling at people. I was disrespectful. I wasn't doing my job anymore.
LAWRENCE: Around that time, his bunkmate saw Bailey injecting himself with drugs. The MPs searched the bunk, and found the medication kit from the plane. Bailey was court-martialed for theft and drug use. By the time of the trial, he'd been diagnosed with TBI and PTSD. He got sentenced to three months in prison and dismissed from the Air Force.
More than 100,000 troops have received less-than-honorable discharges in the past decade of war; some for serious crimes, some for lapses in military discipline. Some have PTSD, some don't. These cases present a dilemma for the military.
PETER CHIARELLI: I wish it was clear-cut.
LAWRENCE: Retired Gen. Pete Chiarelli is former vice chief of the Army. He says there's no perfect way to diagnose PTSD or TBI.
CHIARELLI: We want to be able to determine whether a person demonstrating certain behavior -whether that is due to the trauma of war, or whether it is due to a person just not doing their job and not being a good soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.
LAWRENCE: That's the choice - bad soldier or traumatized soldier.
CHIARELLI: It's an extremely difficult decision to make. Someone has gone to war with you, has served, comes back and starts getting into trouble. And I would argue that 99.9 percent of the commanders err on the side of the soldier. But there are other folks who take advantage of the system. Don't let anybody kid you.
LAWRENCE: He says the incentive of an honorable discharge, with all its benefits, is critical to good order and discipline; and not everyone earns one. Carol Scott is the chair of military and veterans law at the Federal Bar Association. She's been handling cases of bad paper since the 1970s. She thinks the military leans toward blaming the soldiers, and underplaying PTSD.
CAROL SCOTT: If they have PTSD, these alter behaviors - and the behaviors that result - are not acceptable to military discipline. And there have been way too many commanders that just want to get rid of these soldiers.
LAWRENCE: The Pentagon declined comment for this story. Now, once discharged, a veteran is someone else's problem. There's a huge array of veterans' service organizations to help.
BAILEY: Sure. It's all there for you, if you have an honorable discharge.
LAWRENCE: Brandon Bailey, the vet who got injured on that medivac flight, says none of that is open to him.
BAILEY: Job programs, welcome home programs - but if you don't have an honorable discharge, you don't get any of it.
LAWRENCE: Bailey's marriage fell apart this year. He says he still suffers from chronic pain, depression and memory loss, which makes it hard to find a job. A bad discharge is like a scarlet letter. No VA home loan, or GI bill for school. No VA medical care. Eric Highfill, the Navy vet who got turned away from the Michigan VA, he says when people see his bad paper, every door closes.
HIGHFILL: They don't want nothing to do with you. They won't give you a job. They don't want to help you out. The jobs I get are usually hard, hard labor jobs.
LAWRENCE: Highfill has no health insurance. He's been suicidal, and he's still addicted to the painkillers that he says started the problem. He relies heavily on his mother, Karen, but she wants professional help.
KAREN: When we went down there to the VA and they turned him away, he said it was the hardest thing he ever had to do, 'cause he finally had to admit that he had a problem. (Crying) And he said that was very hard to do; to tell people, I've got a problem.
HIGHFILL: It was rough being turned away, to be told no after I've been hiding it for two years and not acknowledging it and not admitting it because I don't want people to look at me differently. I realize it's wrong. I want the help, I need the help because that's what's going to get me better.
LAWRENCE: The other-than-honorable discharge, legally, almost erases the fact that Eric Highfill ever went to war. The question is whether that's fair.
PHIL CARTER: The nation's long had a social contract with its troops.
LAWRENCE: Phil Carter is an Iraq vet now at the Center for a New American Security.
CARTER: We will send you to war and when you come home, we will care for you. And so there's been this gap, this population that's gone to war and earned the benefits of their social contract but for whatever reason, have had those benefits taken away.
LAWRENCE: Carter says there are two ways to see it. Is basic care to those who have borne the battle - is that something you earn with an honorable discharge, or is it a promise made the moment a man or woman volunteers to go fight the country's wars?
Quil Lawrence, NPR News.