Dave Phillips for The New York Times
March 2, 2018

Things got ugly for Cpl. Tyson Manker in Iraq. During a firefight in the confusion of the 2003 invasion, the 21-year-old Marine shot up a bus full of civilians. Later, during a chase, he dropped an Iraqi in a flowing white robe with a shot to the torso, only to discover afterward that he had hit a teenage girl. His squad beat detainees, and accidentally shot several other civilians.

After his deployment, Corporal Manker was kicked out of the Marine Corps with an other-than-honorable discharge — not for anything that happened in combat, but for smoking marijuana to try to quiet his nerves when he got home.

The military has increasingly acknowledged in recent years that there are tens of thousands of Corporal Mankers — troops whose brutal experiences left them with post-traumatic stress disorder, and who were then pushed out of the military for misconduct. Many were given other-than-honorable discharges that stripped them of veterans’ benefits.

The Army and Air Force have moved in recent years to make it easier for these veterans to get their discharges upgraded to honorable. But not the Marine Corps.

The office that oversees discharges for the Navy and Marines, the Naval Discharge Review Board, rejects nearly 85 percent of requests for upgrades relating to PTSD, compared with 45 percent for the Army board.

Mr. Manker, now 36, applied for an upgrade in 2016 and was turned down. “It seems like the board doesn’t even look at the issues,” he said in an interview. “They just say no.”

A group from the Yale Law School filed a federal class-action lawsuit on Friday against the Navy on behalf of Mr. Manker and other Navy and Marine veterans, arguing that behind their denials was “a systemic institutional bias or secret policy that discriminates against applicants who suffer from PTSD.”

The case, filed in New Haven, Conn., is the latest in a series of lawsuits by the university’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic, seeking recognition that vast numbers of veterans, dating back to the Vietnam era, have been improperly discharged and denied the benefits that were meant to help them re-enter society.

A main focus has been the boards for corrections of military records in each branch of the military. These boards have the power to restore a veteran’s eligibility for health care and education benefits by upgrading their discharges to honorable.

The boards were created after World War II, when Congress recognized that disciplinary decisions made quickly under wartime pressure by military commanders often contained mistakes, and that in the aftermath, veterans deserved an avenue for due process to correct them, according to Jonathan Petkun, one of the Yale students who filed the lawsuit.

“We don’t see that happening now,” said Mr. Petkun, a former Marine captain who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The board seems to just be rubber stamping things.”

“As a former officer, I think commanders in the field need broad discretion,” he said. “But when I was an officer, I thought, if I made a mistake, veterans would have recourse. Now I see that is rarely the case.”

Yale students working with veterans groups have gradually forced the Pentagon to be more open to correcting what veterans groups largely view as unfair discharges. In 2014, in response to a lawsuit by Yale and the group Vietnam Veterans of America, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel issued new guidelines for upgrading discharges. The guidelines instructed the review boards to give “liberal consideration” to the possibility that PTSD contributed to a veteran’s other-than-honorable discharge.

The Army board quickly changed course, and its denial rate for applications involving PTSD fell from 96 percent to about 45 percent, according to Department of Defense data. The Air Force made similar changes. But the Navy board, which oversees both sailors and Marines, has scarcely budged.

Brad Carson, who oversaw the Army board as an undersecretary in the Obama administration, said the boards were overworked, and had only a few minutes to review each case. But even with more time, he said, it is far from simple to reach a fair outcome in cases where a veteran clearly committed misconduct and also has a stress-disorder diagnosis.

“How do you determine how PTSD affected an action, which might also be due just to, well, being a bad soldier?” he said in an interview. “The Navy has a strong cultural belief, going back centuries, that you do not second-guess commanders. I suspect because of that, when they have a difficult case, they fall back on tradition and defer to commanders.”

A Navy spokesman said that its board’s staff was too busy to comment for this article.

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Mr. Manker’s experience, detailed in the class-action suit, shows how the Navy board currently denies upgrades even to veterans with clear diagnoses of PTSD whose enlistments ended with a single instance of relatively minor misconduct.

He had been the top-rated junior Marine in his platoon, and the first to be promoted to corporal. During the invasion of Iraq, he became a squad leader in charge of a dozen Marines.

But the stresses of combat piled up. A few weeks after the invasion, his company in the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, were ambushed on a crowded highway in Baghdad. In the shootout, he and several other Marines fired more than a hundred rounds into a bus. His memory is of shattering glass and looks of terror from passengers as the bus sped away. He said he had wounded and perhaps killed an unknown number of civilians.

Fighting a war with no front line against enemies with no uniforms, he saw violence meted out in similarly senseless bursts in the months that followed. He also saw casualties on his team. After a handgun accidentally went off, he had to clean the remnants of a friend’s head out of a Humvee.

“There was never a chance to grieve, no time to process any of this,” Mr. Manker said of his time in Iraq. “We were just expected to be Marines and deal with it.”

At the end of the deployment, the Marine Corps gave everyone in his regiment a one-page questionnaire to screen for post-traumatic stress.

Mr. Manker remembered marking on his questionnaire that he had been exposed to nearly every type of trauma listed, including seeing dead civilians and Marines, killing enemy fighters and civilians, and experiencing nightmares and hypervigilance. No one ever followed up, he said.

A few days after returning to the United States, he said, he smoked marijuana to try to unwind before going on leave. He was caught and discharged from the Marine Corps.

As a civilian, he spent years working in dead-end jobs and struggling with anger, depression and substance abuse. He said he considered suicide. He went to a Veterans Affairs hospital in 2004, but was told that his other-than-honorable discharge barred him from help.

He eventually received a PTSD diagnosis from two civilian therapists. He was treated privately, gradually rebuilt his life, went to college and law school, and began practicing law in Illinois, his home state. In his spare time he studied military regulations, hoping to get his discharge upgraded.

He submitted a 65-page petition to the Board for Corrections of Naval Records in 2016, and got back a denial of just a few pages, peppered with misspellings. The letter said that PTSD had not influenced his decision to smoke marijuana, and that he had made “conscious decisions to violate the tenets of honorable and faithful service.”

Mr. Manker hopes the Yale class-action suit will spur the Navy board to look again at his discharge and those of hundreds of other veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“So many guys and girls are in the same situation,” he said. “They feel betrayed, forgotten and they don’t know what to do.”

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