When service members separate from the military, their futures depend on something called a characterization of service. There are five different possibilities: honorable, general under honorable conditions, other than honorable, bad conduct, and dishonorable.
“Other than honorable” means the service member has had a pattern of misconduct or has been convicted by a civilian court of a crime. Meanwhile, “bad conduct” and “dishonorable” result when a service member commits a felony-level offense. Those two categories, the lowest on the military scale, are also known as “punitive discharges.”
Military discharges are a reward system. Serving without bad behavior or crime earns service members support from the VA. But if they cause trouble, they’re mostly on their own.
“When you get an other than honorable discharge or a bad conduct discharge or a dishonorable discharge, you lose virtually all of your access to VA benefits,” said South Texas College of Law Professor Geoffrey Corn. “They’re supposed to be reserved for service members who served under honorable conditions.”
In July, the VA revised its policies and began offering 90 days of emergency mental health care to veterans with other than honorable discharges – people who it says are at greater risk of suicide and homelessness. But there are still limits. Ex-service members with punitive discharges – bad conduct or dishonorable – are not included. They can only access short-term humanitarian services from the VA, which have to be repaid.
That would have been true for Devin Kelley, who killed 26 people at a Sutherland Springs, Tex. church Nov.5. Kelley – a former Air Force airman – received a bad conduct designation after being
“Those with bad conduct or discharges, such as this gentleman, have violated the law, have violated our morals and ethics, and I do not believe deserve services and benefits,” he said. Shulkin laid the responsibility for care elsewhere. “They have other systems where I believe they could get the help that they need, whether they’re prison systems or other community-based systems,” he said. “But not the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
But some say VA treatment should be available even for people who have received punitive discharges. Dr. Stephen Xenakis is a psychiatrist and retired Army brigadier general who used to administer Army hospitals.
“I don’t see treatment to someone who has a serious problem and committed an offense as a benefit. I see it as a responsibility,” Xenakis said. “In this particular case, it was a responsibility we dropped, and we had horrendous consequences from that.”
Xenakis argues that the military justice system doesn’t offer adequate treatment for offenders transitioning back to civilian life. He said the VA should help coordinate care for newly discharged people. “In the cases I’ve seen and worked with, there hasn’t been much coordination between the military services and the local communities or the states,” Xenakis said. “It really has varied a lot in terms of how closely the people are monitored and what the circumstances of parole are.”
Read more on WUSFNews.USF.edu.