In 2003, I was a non-commissioned officer in the Marine Corps infantry leading a squad of Marines in combat during the invasion of Iraq. By the time our deployment was over, countless innocent civilians who had nothing to do with 9/11 were dead or displaced, and we’d lost our beloved corpsman, Joshua McIntosh.
I returned home without a medical screening or chance to grieve, unknowingly stricken with post-traumatic stress disorder and destined for friction. On one of our first nights of liberty, I drank alcohol and at one point smoked cannabis off base with fellow Marines. Shortly thereafter, one of them got into trouble, and ultimately implicated me and others. I was quickly interrogated without counsel and threatened with 50 years in prison if I refused to confess to self-medicating, and I eventually complied.
Within weeks of combat, I was punished in lieu of treatment, stripped of my rank, fined a month’s pay, and restricted to base for 45 days. At the end of that time, I was administratively separated with an Other Than Honorable discharge. With months remaining in my four-year enlistment, the military sent me home in a shambles with nothing but a bad record. I was 21.
Contrasted with “bad conduct” and “dishonorable” discharges, which can be given only after a trial by court-martial with legal counsel and due-process protections, bad-paper reprimands occur in private with virtually no due process. This puts service members, including those with mental illness from war and those who’ve experienced military sexual trauma, at the mercy of a draconian system that does little to protect individual rights.
Less-than-honorable discharges, used to oust gay troops until the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” are given for a variety of behaviors attributable to PTSD, including self-medication—as I experienced. Most outrageous is when rape victims are punished with bad paper for reporting their assaults. Or the fact that right now black service members are “substantially more likely than white service members to face military justice or disciplinary action.” Bad-paper discharges continue to punish veterans for the remainder of their lives—an objectively disproportionate penalty.
Currently, black service members are “substantially more likely than white service members to face military justice or disciplinary action.”
–Protect Our Defenders, “Racial Disparities in Military Justice”
After being ostracized from their peers and the military community, they’re permanently barred from most government jobs, and most often are not allowed access to VA health care or other much-needed benefits to ease transition out of the military. They face serious disadvantages in the job market, where employers routinely request service records when applicants identify as veterans.
Veterans branded as less-than-honorable are, unsurprisingly, a vulnerable population. Left to fend for themselves, they’re more likely to live homeless on the streets, suffer from substance abuse, become incarcerated, and die by killing themselves. It is no coincidence that more than 45,000 service members and veterans have committed suicide in the last six years.
Perhaps most disturbing is the military’s continuing failure to adequately address these long-standing issues. In 2017, 14 years after it warned about troops being sent home without medical screenings, the Government Accountability Office reported that the military was continuing to punish injured veterans with less-than-honorable discharges, even when their misconduct was attributable to PTSD or traumatic brain injury.