NOEL KING, HOST:
Last year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offered to treat vets who don't normally qualify for care. These are people who earned an other than honorable discharge. The problem was almost no one took them up on it. Now veterans groups are hoping a change in the law will make it easier for this group of veterans to get the health care they need. From member station KPBS in San Diego, Steve Walsh has the story.
STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: At his home outside of San Diego, former Marine Lance Corporal Josh Onan keeps some photos next to his TV from his days as a Marine. In 2006, he was in Ramadi when his Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb.
JOSH ONAN: I remember laying in, like, laying down in the truck, waking up. There's dust. There's debris all over me. And there's an Iraqi colonel who's sitting in the truck with us, and he's just screaming, screaming. I don't understand what he's saying, so that's when I realized, like, oh, here we go. Something big's happening.
WALSH: For the next year after the explosion, he was in and out of trouble - small infractions which he chalks up to the amount of medication prescribed for his head injuries and PTSD. Then, while on leave, he was caught with a small amount of cocaine. That was it. He was kicked out of the Marines. Onan looks at a picture of himself in his battle gear.
ONAN: I'm 32 years old now, and this guy's 20. And I look up to this guy. I know it's me, but I miss everything about it. Sometimes it's hard to find this guy.
WALSH: Onan is one of thousands of veterans who have an other than honorable discharge. They don't typically qualify for VA benefits, even though many, like Onan, struggle with service-related trauma. It's a group with a high suicide rate.
To address that, the VA last summer started a new program. This group of veterans can come into the VA and be treated for mental health issues, at least for 90 days. We asked the VA how many people used the program in the first year. The agency gave us figures showing that, nationally, 115 veterans did - a fraction of the veterans who would now qualify for mental health care. Twenty-five of those patients were in San Diego. Dr. Neal Doran is with the San Diego VA.
NEAL DORAN: They came in saying they had an urgent need, and they were evaluated and received care for that urgent need, whether it was a substance use disorder or suicidal thoughts
WALSH: Veterans advocates are disappointed that just 115 people took advantage of the program when the VA says there are at least 500,000 veterans with other than honorable discharges. Kristofer Goldsmith is an Iraq vet who works with the Vietnam Veterans of America.
KRISTOFER GOLDSMITH: It's not possible that that's the number of people who need help. It's a failure to contact them, to fully inform them and to break the stigma.
WALSH: Vietnam Veterans of America lobbied the VA to help veterans with other than honorable discharges. Executive Director Rick Weidman says the VA just simply didn't promote the program.
RICK WEIDMAN: It's a program that most people who are eligible for don't know about. And the reason for that is that VA refused to do any outreach.
WALSH: Dr. Keita Franklin heads the VA's suicide prevention programs. She said the VA tried to get the word out through veterans organizations.
KEITA FRANKLIN: We rolled it out rather quickly. And we just did, like, universal messaging across the board, just to get the message out, writ large across the nation. And now we are programming with the Department of Defense.
WALSH: The old 90-day program is about to get a much larger mandate. Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut was able to push through legislation that will require the VA to treat vets with other than honorable discharges. Murphy says, as long as their mental health issues are related to their service.
CHRIS MURPHY: If you have PTSD, and because of that PTSD you act out, you should not lose eligibility for your veterans benefits. That's what's been happening.
WALSH: The new law also ends the 90-day cap, which some veterans advocates say made the program even harder to navigate. And it requires the VA to seek out people who qualify. That means service members leaving now, but also, hundreds of thousands who left with less than honorable discharges in the past. Finding those veterans will be tough.
ONAN: I felt shunned. I still feel shunned.
WALSH: After years of being rejected, Josh Onan is now getting his PTSD treatment paid for by the VA. He says it's been a lifesaver, but he fears other veterans have already given up.
ONAN: I wouldn't be surprised if most of them weren't alive. And the reason why I say that is without treatment, without proper care or even loved ones, like, I don't think I could've done it without God and my family. I tell my wife every day, I'm done with this. I don't want to do it anymore. I'm done. I'm done.
WALSH: Murphy's legislation gave the VA 180 days to set up its outreach program. That deadline has already passed. In a written statement, the VA says it is, quote, "writing implementation regulations." Murphy says he has not received word from the VA about when the program will begin. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego.
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