Just days after lawmakers on Capitol Hill heard about the deadly struggles veterans with bad-paper discharges face, and how thousands are denied benefits annually, the Department of Veterans Affairs is floating a change to its policies.
On July 10, VA published a proposal to "update and clarify regulatory bars to benefits based on character of discharge" in the Federal Register.
The policy amendment would change how VA decides whether or not a veteran with an other-than-honorable discharge qualifies for benefits including the GI Bill, health care and home loans.
Specifically, VA proposed modifying its framework for discharges considered "dishonorable" for VA benefit purposes, including discharges due to: "willful and persistent misconduct," "an offense involving moral turpitude," and "homosexual acts involving aggravating circumstances or other factors affecting the performance of duty."
VA also proposed extending an exception for "compelling circumstances" to "ensure fair character of discharge" decisions.
Advocates like Army veteran Kris Goldsmith told Congress July 8 that VA and America had failed to help veterans with bad-paper discharges, leading to fatal consequences in some cases.
Goldsmith told Connecting Vets Friday it was "disappointing that after five years, we waited for this.
"I'm glad they're making an effort, but it took far too long to get a document that really looks like VA is just trying to save itself money ... It's continuing advancing and protecting the only process in American government that completely lacks any due process at all."
Goldsmith, who has been advocating for major changes to VA's policies for years while he simultaneously worked to get his own discharge upgraded, said he hopes the department will go back to the drawing board.
"I really hope that, frankly, they'll completely discard their proposal and sit down with lawyers like the ones I testified with and come up with something that puts justice first and the health of vets first, not saving money."
More than half a million veterans are living with other-than-honorable discharges, according to VA, most of them denied some or all major benefits such as the GI Bill, VA health care and others. About a quarter of all veterans receive a bad-paper discharge, according to Maureen Seidor, legal director of Swords to Plowshares.
Multiple studies show that veterans with bad paper discharges are more likely to be homeless, suffer from substance abuse, become incarcerated, lack access to health care including mental health help, and die by suicide.
Reports also show service members of color, especially Black troops, disproportionately face military justice or disciplinary action, which often leads to bad-paper discharges. LGBTQ troops have been subject to bad-paper discharges and service members who have experienced military sexual trauma have come forward saying the assault and harassment they faced eventually led to their other-than-honorable discharges.
The recent "Turned Away" study from the veteran legal advocates and service organizations showed that VA for decades unlawfully turned away thousands of veterans with other-than-honorable discharges -- leaving some of those most in need bereft of care.
VA officials told lawmakers Wednesday that over the last 10 years, the department made more than 35,000 character of discharge (COD) decisions. Of those, 90 percent were denied for at least some VA benefits. At least 10,000 were denied medical benefits. Officials told Congress VA was working on revising its policies, and those revisions were reflected in the Federal Register July 10.
"I am a veteran with bad paper," Goldsmith told a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee Wednesday. "In addition to the trauma of war, the experience of being discharged with a less-than-fully-honorable status and the resulting denial of VA benefits has shaped my entire life.
"I beg you: please do something big. Drag your colleagues along with you if you have to ... End this national tragedy."
Days later, Goldsmith told Connecting Vets he hopes for a full subcommittee hearing on the issue soon or even a joint hearing between Veterans Affairs and Armed Services lawmakers.
"If a simple oversight hearing for a subpanel shook this loose, imagine what something bigger could do," he said.