The US Still Penalizes Thousands of Veterans

The military has a very long history of denying veterans’ benefits to soldiers. From a high of veterans granted benefits through the GI bill following World War II, the number of veterans who have been denied benefits beginning during the Vietnam War accelerated and reached new highs during the post-2001 War on Terror. During this period, soldiers who sometimes committed minor infractions were denied veterans’ benefits.

I have known several veterans who had serious health issues connected to their military experience and had to fight for support from the Veterans Administration. The plight of those suffering the ill effects of exposure to the defoliant Agent Orange used to make forested areas of Vietnam visible for attacks by the US, are among a group that had to fight strenuously for deserved benefits. A friend from the post-World War II era fought until the end of his life to get the benefits he deserved after serving as a military photographer in the Pacific whose work involved taking photographs of nuclear tests.

Following the Vietnam War, Jimmy Carter issued an amnesty program that offered the chance for amnesty to hundreds of thousands of draft and military resisters. There were 432,530 veterans who qualified to have their discharges upgraded, who were discharged with either undesirable or general discharges. The Carter amnesty program (“Carter Authorizes Military To Review Viet Discharges,” Washington Post, March 29, 1977) had several pitfalls, with a narrow window of opportunity of only several months for veterans to apply to the program and a lengthy process that typically required the veteran to appear before a special discharge board made up of military officers and plead his case. The earlier Ford program of amnesty was so punitive that amnesty organizations boycotted it. Those veterans who qualified for that program were given a second discharge that further penalized them and marked them negatively. Most had to complete a punitive form of alternative service.

A major criticism at the time of the Ford and Carter amnesties was that they distinguished negatively between draft and military resisters and were not nearly as generous as Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon. Readers may discern the prejudices in play here as a hierarchy of merit. Nixon was the most favored person in that hierarchy, with draft resisters and military resisters coming next.

Readers may consider the fact that many thousands of veterans and those who allegedly violated draft laws, who qualified for both the Ford and Carter amnesties, were not war resisters.

Although many war resisters took advantage of the Carter program, many thousands did not and many thousands remained mostly in Canada where they had begun new lives years earlier.

Readers may wonder if the US has learned anything from the Vietnam amnesty experience, but a recent lawsuit brought by two Connecticut veterans of the post-2001 era will make the US Army review thousands (“Army Agrees to Review Thousands of Unfavorable Discharges for Veterans,” New York Times, November 19, 2020) of less-than-honorable discharges that were often given for so-called infractions of military rules that would be adjudicated at the lowest level of jurisdiction in civilian courts.

The class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of the Connecticut veterans with the help of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale University could apply to between 50,000 and 100,000 veterans and is pending a judge’s review.

The superpower status of the US has made war into an endless web that involves men and women fighting enemies designated by the government. The cost of these wars amounts to trillions of dollars and an arms industry that is bursting at its seams with profits. That those involved in the military in all of these wars are sometimes denied veterans’ benefits in a punitive manner calls into question the hierarchy of who is called upon to support these endless wars and how they are treated after their military experience.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).