Connecticut VA Opens Its Doors To 'Bad Paper' Veterans

Nov 26, 2018
Originally published on November 27, 2018 2:05 pm

Editor's note: This story contains a description of self-harm.

For an estimated 500,000 veterans, being put out of the military with an other than honorable discharge is a source of shame and an obstacle to employment. "Bad paper," in most cases, means no benefits or health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs — even when the problems that got them kicked out were linked to PTSD, traumatic brain injury or military sexual assault.

But last month, Connecticut opened state VA resources to vets who can show that one of those conditions is linked to their discharge. For veterans like Thomas Burke, now a youth minister at Norfield Congregational Church, it's part of a long path to recovery.

"When I first started looking for jobs, I did not want to be a youth minister to kids, because my PTSD stems from a traumatic event where I failed children," says Burke.

Burke did two combat deployments with the Marine Corps within the space of one year. After a rough tour in Iraq, he found himself in southern Afghanistan, based in a tiny village, living close to civilians. Burke had been trained in the local language, and he connected with the village kids. In one photo, Burke is in combat gear, playing with 15 laughing boys on a dusty road. He says local boys helped out — they would tell them where IEDs were. He grew to love them and they loved him back.

"They'd bring us bombs," he says. "On one of those occasions they were bringing us [a rocket-propelled grenade], and it ended up exploding on them."

When Burke heard the blast, he and other Marines rushed out to find eight of the kids from that photo dead.

That sent him into a spiral — the local hashish was plentiful and many soldiers used it. Burke started smoking heavily and got caught.

Suddenly a promising young Marine was getting kicked out with an other than honorable discharge — a sort of scarlet letter for a veteran, which many say is worse than never having served at all.

Burke was flown to his home base in Hawaii, where a mix of prescriptions and street drugs made things worse. Then, he flew back home.

"I took a plane to Connecticut and slit my wrists in a state park," he says.

Veterans with an other than honorable discharge have higher rates of suicide. They're at higher risk of homelessness. Mental health issues can snowball with economic ones: When employers ask about military service, they also ask about discharge status — so for job prospects, it is worse than never having served.

"These individuals up till now were denied clinical support services and other programs and benefits, and we believe in many cases may have resulted in a worsening of their conditions," says Thomas Saadi, Connecticut's commissioner for veterans affairs.

Saadi says it makes both moral and practical sense to help these vets before they're in crisis. And that's what Connecticut is now doing, thanks in part to the efforts of veterans like Burke.

After Burke's failed suicide attempt, the VA made a rare exception, and he was able to get services. He started down a different path — to become a pastor.

And he joined a push to change the law around other than honorable discharge. He found allies in the state Legislature, like Republican Rep. Brian Ohler, also a combat vet.

"When we testified before the Veterans Affairs Committee, [Thomas] and I were sitting right next to each other," says Ohler. "And I said the only difference between Thomas and I is a piece of paper — one that says honorable discharge and the other that says other than honorable."

It took years of lobbying, but as of last month, Connecticut veterans whose other than honorable discharge is linked to PTSD, brain injury or sexual assault will qualify for state health care and benefits, including tuition to state schools.

The national VA is changing too — earlier this year Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., pushed through legislation that makes VA mental health care available nationwide to veterans with other than honorable discharges, though it has been slow to roll out.

For Burke, helping get recognition and treatment for other bad-paper vets has been part of feeling whole again. When he hears kids laughing, it still triggers memories of Afghanistan, but he can smile through them now.

"The opportunity to work with children fills me with the spirit and life and joy in a way that I can't even explain, because it also makes me recognize how far I've come from the person who got back from war," says Burke.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hundreds of thousands of veterans have so-called bad paper, meaning they received other-than-honorable discharges. Now, that used to mean no benefits, no health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs even when the problems that got them kicked out of the military were linked to combat trauma. The VA has changed its policy. It now lets these veterans get mental health care. One state has gone even further. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Connecticut.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Norfield Congregational is a little, white New England church with a steeple just north of Westport, Conn., and about a dozen kids are here for an after-school program. Thomas Burke is the youth minister, and he speaks their language.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: You like Harry Potter? Oh, I love Harry Potter.

THOMAS BURKE: You like my castle? Oh, you guys all are coming in?

LAWRENCE: This is miraculous in Burke's estimation. He never thought he'd be able to work with kids.

BURKE: Because my PTSD stems from a traumatic event where I failed children.

LAWRENCE: Burke served in the Marine Corps. In 2008, he lost a close friend in Iraq and came home troubled. He thought about suicide but, better still, another combat deployment. Within the same year, he was in Afghanistan.

BURKE: 'Cause then if you die, you're a hero. Past sins and transgressions are wiped away because the only thing that you're remembered for is that you gave your life in service to your country.

LAWRENCE: Burke was a good Marine. He'd been sent to learn Pashto before he deployed to southern Afghanistan. He was living close to civilians, and he connected with them.

BURKE: And one of the things that the local kids - I'm not sure - did - I showed you this picture.

LAWRENCE: In the photo, Burke is 20 years old in combat gear but smiling, clearly at home playing with 15 laughing Afghan boys on a dusty road. He says he loved them.

BURKE: One of the other things they did was they would either tell us where IEDs were, or they would bring them to us. They would actually bring us bombs. On one of those occasions, they were actually bringing us an RPG, and it ended up exploding on them.

LAWRENCE: Eight of the kids from that photo were dead because they were trying to help him.

BURKE: And we had to go clean it up, and we did.

LAWRENCE: Burke went into a spiral. He says the local hashish was plentiful, and many soldiers used it. Burke got caught. And suddenly a promising young Marine was getting kicked out. He was flown home to his home base in Hawaii, where a mix of prescriptions and street drugs made things worse.

BURKE: Took a plane to Connecticut and slit my wrists in a state park.

LAWRENCE: Veterans with an other-than-honorable discharge have higher rates of suicide. They're at higher risk of homelessness. Mental health issues snowball with economic ones. Employers ask about discharge status, so it's hard to find a good job. PTSD or traumatic brain injury - those need specialized treatment very expensive without a job or VA health care. VA estimates there are about 500,000 vets with other-than-honorable discharges. Thomas Saadi is Connecticut's commissioner for Veterans Affairs.

THOMAS SAADI: These individuals up till now were denied clinical support services and other programs and benefits and, in many cases, may have resulted in a worsening of their condition.

LAWRENCE: Saadi says these vets need to be helped before a crisis, and that might now happen in part because of the efforts of veterans like Thomas Burke. After his failed suicide attempt, the VA made a rare exception, and he was able to get services. Burke started down a different path to become a pastor, and he joined a push to change the law around other-than-honorable discharge. He found allies in the state legislature like Republican Representative Brian Ohler, also a combat vet.

BURKE: When we testified before the Veterans Affairs Committee, him and I were sitting right next to each other. And I said, the only difference between Thomas and I is a piece of paper, one that says honorable discharge and the other that says other-than-honorable.

LAWRENCE: It took years of lobbying, but as of last month, Connecticut veterans whose other-than-honorable discharge is linked to PTSD or brain injury or sexual assault - they will qualify for state health care and benefits.

BURKE: I hope that Connecticut can be the standard bearer for New England and certainly the nation.

LAWRENCE: It already is. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy pushed through legislation this year that makes VA mental health care available nationwide to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges, though it has been slow to roll out. For Pastor Thomas Burke, it's been part of his recovery to the point where he can work with the youth choir.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Oh, we give thanks. Oh, we give thanks.

BURKE: Having the opportunity to work with children fills me with the spirit and life and joy because it also makes me recognize how far I've come from the person who got back from war.

(Singing) Oh, we give thanks...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Oh, we give thanks...

BURKE: (Singing) ...For this precious day.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) ...For this precious day.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Weston, Conn.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In an earlier audio version of this report, the correspondent mistakenly said he was reporting from Northfield, Conn. The audio has been corrected to clarify that he was in Weston, Conn.]

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) ...For those gathered here...

BURKE: (Singing) ...And those far away...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) ...And those far away...

BURKE: (Singing) ...For the time we share...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) ...For the time we share...

BURKE: (Singing) ...With love and care...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) ...With love and care...

BURKE: (Singing) ...We give thanks.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) ...Oh, we give thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.