'Deadly serious': Bad paper discharges keep veterans from critical benefits, advocates tell Congress

Kris Goldsmith, Lauren Katzenberg and their dog, Frosting.
Photo credit Courtesy of Kris Goldsmith
Editor's note: This story contains a description of suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Veteran Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1 for a VA staff member). Veterans, service members or their families also can text 838255 or go to veteranscrisisline.net.

The "failure of the Department of Veterans Affairs and America to help veterans with bad-paper discharges is "deadly serious," Army veteran and advocate Kris Goldsmith told lawmakers on Capitol Hill Wednesday. 

He knows that firsthand.

"I am a veteran with bad paper," he told a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee. "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." 

To cope with horrors he witnessed on deployment as a19-year-old Army forward observer, Goldsmith said he turned to binge drinking. Though his military career reflected success, Goldsmith was suffering inside. After struggling to get mental health treatment from the Army, he said he gave up. 

Goldsmith tried to kill himself near a memorial for fallen soldiers. He was found unconscious and rushed to a hospital.Months later, Goldsmith said he was removed from the Army with a "general" discharge, which would cost him access to the GI Bill. After an otherwise successful military career, Goldsmith said a staff sergeant issued two counseling statements to him: 

"One for 'malingering' (a medical diagnosis that an infantryman with only a high school education is not qualified to make) and for 'missing movement,' as my suicide attempt had occurred the night before what would have been my second deployment to Iraq," he said. "Those two counseling statements were all that it took to quickly kick me out of the Army." 

Goldsmith was suddenly back home "with no job, no hope, suicidal and drinking heavily." The social stigma of his discharge cut him off "from the men who had months before been like brothers to me." 

He wasn't welcome at many of local posts for veteran service organizations. He couldn't collect unemployment as the economy collapsed under the 2008 recession. He was ineligible for most scholarships and fellowships for vets. With the mark of a bad-paper discharge, Goldsmith said he found himself not just unemployed but "unemployable." 

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 is working on revising its policies but those changes had not yet been published.

Goldsmith's discharge did allow him access to VA healthcare. At his mother's urging, he sought help and filed a disability claim. He was immediately diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. 

"That access to VA care is the only reason that I'm alive to testify before you today," Goldsmith told lawmakers in his first Congressional testimony on bad paper discharges, despite being a leading advocate on the issue for years. 

But not all veterans have access to VA health care. Those with other-than-honorable discharges "have thus far been systematically denied essential healthcare services from the VA," he said. 

VA's interpretation of the 1944 GI Bill of Rights is the issue, Goldsmith argued. VA officials reinterpreted the law "to reduce their workload and save money" by denying veterans' benefits. 

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. 

Now, Goldsmith has become the "face of bad paper," he jokes, after sharing his story far and wide and working to help others like him. He's healing from his PTSD, recently graduated with honors from Columbia, has been instrumental in veterans legislative efforts and runs his own nonprofit, High Ground Veterans Advocacy. He spent years as a chief investigator for Vietnam Veterans of America, revealing foreign actors targeting veterans and troops online and forcing change at Facebook and Twitter. 

It took Goldsmith 12 years to get the Army to upgrade his discharge to fully honorable. When the Army finally relented, they sent his upgraded discharge to his childhood home. He wouldn't learn of it for half a year. VA never learned of it, so he missed out on GI Bill benefits while in school. VA still owes him backpay, he says.

Goldsmith doesn't want any more veterans to go through what he and thousands of others have experienced. 

"Through all of this frustration I’ve spent this time learning that I’m not alone, and that there are major systemic flaws that allow patriots like me to serve and sacrifice for this country, only to be discarded like trash," he said. "Since I learned about this country’s abandonment of veterans with bad paper, it’s been my primary focus in life to see that things are made right." 

VA and Congress leaders and the two latest White House administrations have all vowed to make veteran suicide prevention their No. 1 priority. So far, no substantive changes have been made. 

Before he was removed as VA Secretary by the president, David Shulkin told Congress he planned to provide VA emergency treatment and care to veterans with bad paper discharges. Those plans have not been pursued by his successor, Robert Wilkie. 

Goldsmith and other advocates told lawmakers Wednesday VA has the statutory authority to extend benefits to bad-paper veterans but lacks the willingness. So Congress must step up. 

"If this committee is serious about reducing veteran suicide, the only way to do so is by ensuring access to care for veterans with bad paper," said Dana Montalto,. attorney and clinical instructor with the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School. 

 "I beg you: please do something big," Goldsmith said. "Drag your colleagues along with you if you have to ... End this national tragedy." 

For decades, VA ‘unlawfully’ turned away thousands of veterans, report shows

A Navy and Marine veteran class-action suit could help vets with 'bad paper' discharges

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.
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