Lawsuit document

Veteran Service Organizations Sue VA to Reform Discharge Regulations

Legal Battle Aims to Secure VA Benefits for Veterans with Less Than Honorable Discharges

Two prominent veteran service organizations, the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP) and Swords to Plowshares, have filed a lawsuit urging the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to amend its Character of Discharge regulations. This lawsuit seeks to rectify an ongoing issue where thousands of veterans with less than honorable discharges are unfairly denied VA benefits. The NVLSP and Swords to Plowshares, represented by the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School and Latham & Watkins LLP, are taking legal action on behalf of these veterans who have faced obstacles in accessing essential VA benefits.

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Challenges Faced by Veterans with Less Than Honorable Discharges

Less than honorable discharges are often the result of minor disciplinary infractions, often stemming from trauma or experiences of injustice during military service. Certain groups, including post-9/11 veterans, veterans of color, LGBTQ+ veterans, Military Sexual Trauma (MST) survivors, and veterans with mental health conditions like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), have disproportionately high rates of these discharges.

The current VA regulations have prevented these veterans from receiving critical care and benefits, leading to higher rates of suicide, chronic homelessness, and unemployment. The lawsuit calls upon the VA to amend its regulations to grant care and benefits access to veterans who need it most.

A Testimony of Hope: The Struggles of Veterans

One such veteran, Joseph Effiong, a Marine Corps combat veteran who served two deployments in Iraq, was initially denied VA benefits due to his less than honorable discharge. After a decade of appeals supported by Swords to Plowshares, he finally gained access to VA mental health treatment and monthly disability compensation for his combat-related PTSD. Effiong hopes that the VA will swiftly change its rules so that other veterans can access essential care without unnecessary hurdles.

Unresolved Issues with the PACT Act

While President Biden and Congress passed the PACT Act, which expanded healthcare eligibility and service-connected conditions for veterans exposed to toxins, the VA’s current Character of Discharge regulations continue to hinder the act’s full implementation. Veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and received less than honorable discharges remain ineligible for full benefits under the PACT Act, even if they develop life-threatening conditions due to toxic exposure.

Barriers Faced by Veterans with Less Than Honorable Discharges

Veterans who receive less than honorable discharges often lose their legal status as veterans, preventing them from accessing vital VA services such as healthcare, disability benefits, education programs, and housing assistance. Regardless of their service record, awards, or deployment history, these veterans remain excluded. There are currently over 600,000 veterans with less than honorable discharges, all of whom struggle to access the comprehensive care provided by the VA.

Michael Blecker, Executive Director of Swords to Plowshares, expressed his concern, saying, “The VA has come a long way in serving veterans with excellent healthcare, housing services, and a host of other benefits, but far too many veterans are ineligible for those lifesaving services for unjust, arbitrary, and frankly discriminatory reasons.”

The Fight for Veterans’ Rights

With this lawsuit, veterans’ rights advocates call for urgency and demand that the VA issue a final rule that ensures veterans can access the benefits they have rightfully earned. As these dedicated organizations take legal action, they remain committed to securing justice for veterans with less than honorable discharges and ensuring that the VA upholds its promises to those who have served their nation.

About the Organizations

  • Swords to Plowshares: Founded in 1974, Swords to Plowshares is a community-based nonprofit organization that provides various services for low-income, homeless, and at-risk veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area. These services include counseling, case management, rapid re-housing, eviction prevention, employment and training, supportive housing, and legal benefits assistance.
  • National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP): NVLSP is an independent, nonprofit veterans service organization that has been serving active duty military personnel and veterans since 1981. The organization aims to ensure that veterans receive the benefits they have earned through their service.
  • Latham & Watkins: Latham & Watkins is a global law firm known for delivering innovative solutions to complex legal and business challenges. The firm is dedicated to pro bono work and actively supports diversity initiatives.

This lawsuit represents a crucial step toward rectifying the injustices faced by veterans with less than honorable discharges and ensuring their access to essential VA benefits.

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  1. I find this article strange in that, as a retired CVSO, I assisted several Other Than Honorable (OTH) dischargees get VA healthcare. A few even eventually obtained the Compensation benefits due to Discharge Upgrades by their Branch Board of Corrections. VA’s own 38 Code of Federal Regulation (38 CFR) requires them to provide care for Presumptive Conditions or injuries/illnesses they believe to be service related once they have Adjudicated the reason for the discharge being OTH, Characterof Service Determination.

    Example: Vietnam Veteran given an “Undesirable/OTH” discharge after a mental health crisis in ‘Nam, 3 months in Psych ward in Japan, taken to states, repeatedly told he wasn’t “Trying hard enough to get better”, discharged 2 months later while still in treatment. Diagnosed Parkinson’s (Presumptive), VA Adjudicated and he is now in VA care for Parkinson’s & PTSD. Working on Emergency Upgrade request to allow Compensation.

    Regulation related to OTH discharges & VA healthcare / benefits: (#2) (Character of Discharge) (Title 10, VA Authority for “Review of discharge &
    award benefits) (Service-connected health-care for OTH)

    VA procedural manual, Google: M21-1MR, Part III, Subpat v, Chapt 1, Sec B

    VA Proposed rule change:

    VA current Factsheet:

  2. The benefits are what is important because the care in many cases is non-existent aside from emergency care and medication. If you get benefits, then you can get health insurance and get medical care. The problems at VA are three fold, denial of care over cost, under hiring and firing for that matter, and just not enough honest, educated people to give a fuck about other people in this country. Political biases, hatreds, flawed theories, competitive mentality, these things come into play on the bottom with unwillingness to dedicate proper resources going on at the top. Issuing insurance cards needs to happen to prevent more death. The VA is a threat to life. Forget about pushing for better care and benefits for a second and think about the goddamn threat they pose to people’s lives being what they are right now. Their priority focus should be, “How do we limit the damage that we are doing to people and the country by keeping a system like this in place?”

  3. This entire story is regurgitated talking points.

    Don’t be fooled by the heart-string song of reasons Service Characterization should be upgraded. They are all moot. The name of the game is swelling enrollment numbers. VA is drunk on new money.

    Consider this very real scenario based on what’s already happening in the VA: Soldiers “Chaptered Out” for Unsatisfactory Performance are already being employed in staff and social work positions in the VA. That seems important. PPL who were kicked out of the military involuntarily for soft reasons now hold discriminating authority over Veterans in every pro-se conflict. PPL who were kicked out of the military now work as stand-by body slammers at VA clinics around the country. Now the VA wants PPL kicked out for misconduct mingling with ppl kicked out for unsat and this other group of ppl we ignore:

    the disabled veterans entitled to be there.

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