On December 7, 2015 the Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics (DOJ-BJS) released its latest national survey of veterans in jail and prison. The survey noted that an estimated 181,500 veterans were incarcerated in correctional facilities (State and Federal prisons and County Jails). This represented 8% of the total number of inmates. One sub-population within that overall demographic which is of particular interest is the number of incarcerated veterans who were separated from military service under less than honorable circumstances. According to survey, 52.8% of veterans in prison and 52.7% of those in jail were honorably discharged from military service:
In terms of the numbers of incarcerated veterans who reported combat experience the survey notes that 15.9% of veterans in prison served in Afghanistan and 25.5% served in Iraq. An estimated one quarter of all incarcerated veterans reported combat exposure. Higher numbers of veteran inmates (47.6% in prison, 54.7% in jail) reported a history of mental health issues than inmates from the general population (36.3% and 43.4%, respectively). A majority of incarcerated veterans served in the Army (55%), with Navy (19.8%) and the Marine Corps (16.7%) comprising the bulk of the remainder.
The issue of discharge status is of high import for those working in veteran’s services, as mental health and criminal justice professionals. For veterans separated from military service under less than honorable conditions a plethora of social barriers impede viability: access to jobs, education, healthcare and a wide range of services result in heightened likelihood of homelessness and justice contact. In addition, the inability to obtain service-connected disability compensation and VA services shifts fiscal burdens to State and Local governments, as well as, the private sector. In addition, the families of these veterans also suffer along with former service members.
How big is this problem? Well, it’s nothing new, that much is certain. In an article by Rebecca Izzo which appeared in the Yale Law Journal in 2013 and entitled, “In Need of Correction: How the Army Board for Correction of Military Records Is Failing Veterans with PTSD” 560,000 Vietnam veterans were discharged under less than honorable conditions:
A Colorado-based Non-Profit Organization (501 c 3), the Uniformed Services Justice & Advocacy Group (USJAG) has, for the past several years, served in a rather singular capacity in this domain: The organization intercedes between the military and active duty soldiers who face improper separation from military service under less than honorable conditions. A series of articles among major media outlets have featured the work of USJAG, including the Pulitzer prize-winning series “Other Than Honorable” by the Gazette’s Dave Philips;
In October, 2015, National Public Radio (NPR) and Colorado Public Radio (CPR) teamed up to report on the continuing disservice to large numbers of combat veterans. The article by Dan Zwerling and entitled, “Missed Treatment: Soldiers With Mental Health Issues Dismissed For ‘Misconduct’” led to a call by 12 US Senators into the improper discharge of 22,000 Army combat veterans with service-related mental health disorders;
The soldiers and veterans served by the Uniformed Services Justice & Advocacy Group have served in combat, often on multiple deployments. Many of them have been decorated for their service. Following interaction with civilian and\or military justice systems they have faced—or are facing—separations from service under less than honorable circumstances. In all of the more than 300 soldiers and veterans assisted by the organization, a causal link between justice interaction and psychological (PTSD, Major Depression) or Physical (Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI) is established. Facing Chapter separations from service, these soldiers and veterans are denied financial compensation and access to healthcare for both themselves and their families.
According to information obtained by FOIA requests to the Department of Defense submitted by NPR’s Dan Zwerdling, the Gazette’s Dave Philips and the Center for North American Studies (CNAS) the total number of soldiers across all five branches of our military who were separated under Honorable conditions between 2004 and 2011 was 1,123,764. The number of those discharged under all other conditions stood at 424,849—that represents more than 37.8% of the total. As the NPR coverage reflects, many of these discarded soldiers were diagnosed, within two years of separation, with combat-related psychological conditions. This goes far beyond the “few bad apples” argument indeed. For tens of thousands of military veterans and their families this is a problem that will haunt our nation for decades to come just as it did in the wake of the conflicts in Southeast Asia.