Military Law

Yale law students help file class action to seek benefits for thousands of Vietnam vets with PTSD

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Working at a Yale Law School clinic intended to help U.S. military veterans obtain benefits from the Veterans Administration, law students soon realized they were dealing with a bigger problem.

A number of the older veterans who came to the clinic received less-than-honorable discharges because they had been displaying symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that wasn’t recognized at the time of the Vietnam War. Then, because of their discharge status, they couldn’t obtain full VA benefits.

The result was a federal lawsuit that Yale law students—working with the school’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic—helped file Monday in federal court in Connecticut, which seeks class-action status. It asks for a change in the discharge classification of perhaps tens of thousands of older Air Force, Army and Navy veterans, demanding that they be treated the same as younger veterans who suffered from PTSD and received honorable discharges, according to Reuters and the Wall Street Journal (sub. req.).

“The military gave these service members other than honorable discharges based on poor conduct such as unauthorized absence without leave, shirking, using drugs, or lashing out at comrades or superior officers,” says the lawsuit of the plaintiffs. “These behaviors, however, are typical of those who have recently experienced trauma and were symptoms of the veterans’ underlying, undiagnosed PTSD.”

Lead plaintiff Conley Monk of New Haven, Conn., enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1968. He says he returned to his battalion’s home base in Japan after a tour of duty with the 9th Motor Transport Battalion in Vietnam in 1969 suffering from flashbacks and a constant sense of fear.

“When I was in high school, I worked at the VA hospital in the kitchen as a dishwasher. But after I came home from Vietnam, I couldn’t even get my job back as a dishwasher because of my bad paper,” he says in a joint press release by the groups representing the plaintiffs. “My discharge status has been a lifetime scar. If I were discharged today, my PTSD would be recognized and treated—and I wouldn’t be punished for having a service-connected medical condition.”

The National Veterans Council for Legal Redress and Vietnam Veterans of America have joined the law school veterans clinic in the suit, which seeks to obtain benefits for older military benefits by recognizing the PTSD that the suit says resulted in their less-than-honorable discharges.

“The military has never conducted a comprehensive review of Vietnam War Era discharges to determine whether it erroneously and unjustly burdened disabled veterans who served in theater with other than honorable discharges,” the suit states. “This failure has barred thousands of combat veterans from the benefits they deserve to which they would otherwise be entitled.”

The Hartford Courant and the New Haven Register also have stories.

Related coverage:

ABA Journal: “Defending the Defenders: New Guide Covers How to Defend Veterans with Invisible War Wounds”

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