In the years since I started representing veterans and working on veterans policy, I’ve had little cause for optimism. I’ve had many moments of joy helping clients access life-saving veterans benefits and rebuild their lives. But these victories were islands in a sea of frustration. The federal government has long made promises to care for veterans that it simply doesn’t keep.
This Veterans Day, however, on the heels of the presidential election, I’m hopeful for the first time in a long time.
For decades, veterans have committed suicide at a higher rate than the general population, suffered the lifelong effects of military sexual assault, and carried the trauma of in-service race and sexual orientation-based discrimination. The election of Joe Biden as president and Kamala Harris as vice president last week portends a new era on all of these fronts.
Roughly 20 veterans commit suicide every day. And this number is only projected to rise in the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. This tragedy has long been viewed as intractable. Biden, however, has an aggressive and realistic plan. In recognition of how time-sensitive suicidal ideation often is, he has proposed “immediate” access to mental health services for veterans in crisis. He would accomplish this by increasing staffing at Veterans Affairs facilities and expanding the veterans suicide crisis line capacity.
Importantly, Biden has also committed to public education and outreach initiatives aimed at removing the stigma associated with mental health treatment. As a veterans attorney, I heard my clients’ fears that seeking treatment for PTSD would stand in the way of employment. The military culture of self-sufficiency also served as a barrier to my clients getting needed support.
Vice President-Elect Harris is committed to improving veterans’ welfare, too. Indeed, she has been outspoken on the third rail of veterans policy—bad paper discharges.
Hundreds of thousands of servicemembers have been kicked out of the military with a less than honorable discharge. This discharge characterization is a barrier to critical benefits, such as VA health care and disability compensation. A bad paper discharge can also be a source of stigma.
Yet veterans with bad paper discharges are most in need of support. They have higher rates of substance abuse, homelessness and suicide than other veterans. And many are sexual assault survivors. Others were discharged under the military’s discriminatory sexual orientation policies, or as a result of racial bias in the military justice system.
In addition, the conduct that leads to a bad paper discharge is often not serious or worthy of punishment. A bad paper discharge can result from something as small as being late to formation, or from self-medication to manage symptoms of combat PTSD.
Harris understands that veterans with bad paper deserve support, not vilification. She has proposed a presumption of eligibility for VA health care and housing for veterans with bad paper. This is a bold plan that could help hundreds of thousands of veterans.
Currently, the VA presumes that veterans with bad paper are ineligible for VA services. To access basic benefits like health care, veterans with bad paper must fight their way through the VA bureaucracy to establish their veteran status. Very few prevail; the VA turns away nearly all who apply.
I’ve seen the human harms of the VA’s presumption of ineligibility. Many of my clients lost years of their lives to homelessness and mental illness as their applications for veteran status languished. Harris’ proposal would help veterans get critical benefits before it’s too late.
Harris’ proposal also tackles the root of the bad paper problem. While the VA is responsible for caring for veterans upon their return to civilian life, the Department of Defense creates bad paper veterans. Harris would direct the DOD to review all bad paper discharges for possible bias and mitigating factors, such as PTSD and traumatic brain injury.
This review would also focus on identifying servicemembers whose misconduct is a manifestation of distress stemming from sexual assault. This preemptive approach is much needed. Though there’s room for debate in many areas of veterans policy, we can all agree that assault survivors should not be kicked out of service and blocked from VA benefits.
Critically, both Biden and Harris, unlike President Trump, have taken a formal pledge to combat the military sexual assault epidemic. In 2018 alone, 20,500 servicemembers were sexually assaulted. And between 2016 and 2018, the rate of sexual assault grew by 40%.
Under the pledge, Biden and Harris commit to drastic reform. They call for independent military prosecutors, rather than commanders, to make prosecutorial decisions in sexual assault cases. This would remove command bias and minimize the risk of retaliation against victims. As things stand now, one-third of servicemembers who report being assaulted suffer retaliatory discharges.
This Veterans Day, let’s embrace this rare opportunity for optimism. But let’s also keep up the heat. Biden and Harris’ commitments to veterans are promises we can’t afford not to keep.
Rose Carmen Goldberg teaches veterans law at UC Berkeley School of Law. Previously she represented veterans in San Francisco who received bad paper discharges consequent to sexual assault, combat PTSD and discrimination.