Eric Highfill spent five years in the Navy, fixing airplanes for special operations forces. His discharge papers show an Iraq campaign medal and an Afghanistan campaign medal, a good-conduct medal, and that he's a marksman with a pistol and sharpshooter with a rifle.
None of that matters, because at the bottom of the page it reads "Discharged: under other than honorable conditions."
Highfill, a 27-year-old Michigan native, says he got addicted to the painkillers he was taking for a knee injury. In the Navy's eyes, Highfill screwed up. He got a DUI, among other things, and so it kicked him out. And that means when he went to a Department of Veterans Affairs medical center, it did the same.
"I went down to the Battle Creek [Mich.] VA and I spoke with the receptionist. She looked at my discharge and said, 'Well, you have a bad discharge. ... Congress does not recognize you as a veteran.' And they turned me away," Highfill says.
Highfill and more than 100,000 other troops left the armed services with "bad paper" over the past decade of war. Many went to war, saw combat, even earned medals before they broke the rules of military discipline or in some cases committed serious crimes. The bad discharge means no VA assistance, no disability compensation, no GI Bill, and it's a red flag on any job application. Most veterans service organizations don't welcome bad paper vets, and even many private sector jobs programs for vets accept honorable discharge only.
"They want nothing to do with you," Highfill says. "They won't give you a job, they won't take care of you, they don't want to help you out. The jobs I get are usually hard, hard-labor jobs."
The VA confirmed Highfill's visit and said he was offered information on how to appeal his status. The VA can do its own independent evaluation of a veteran's character of service before rejecting or accepting a vet with a bad discharge. Highfill's story is consistent with dozens of other veterans who spoke to NPR.
The Other War
Many veterans with bad paper argue that their conduct was the result of post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. That's what Army veteran Reed Holway says led to his bad-conduct discharge.
Holway, 29, went to Iraq in 2005 for a 13-month tour, as the insurgency was ramping up. Something was always exploding. Early in his tour he watched a mortar drop into a building on base right in front of him.
"I heard a deep thud that kinda turned my gut inside out. I turned around and just as I did I saw what looked like a football coming out of the sky and ... blowing [a] building to smithereens," Holway says. "I was close enough to it that the drink in my cargo pocket had broken and I thought I'd urinated in my pants."
After a fellow soldier died, Holway had trouble sleeping; the clinic on base proscribed him Prozac and Ambien. His post-deployment medical screening showed depression and violent, even suicidal thoughts. It didn't get better back in the States. Holway was assigned to Fort Riley, Kan., but he started drinking heavily.
Months before he would have finished his enlistment, Holway had a breakdown while he was baby-sitting his girlfriend's child.
"I was on a bender and I couldn't handle the baby screaming," he says. "It did something to me inside that made me want to die. ... And I couldn't channel these feelings. And the screaming, it got to a point where, I don't know why, but I struck the child. Something went through my head like, 'I really shouldn't do this.' "
The blows left a mark, and Holway soon found himself before a court-martial. He did time for the assault and then went home to New Hampshire with a bad-conduct discharge. His father says the Army sent home an entirely different person from the young man who enlisted.
"I gave them a fine human being and they gave me back a damaged boy, with no concern about what they'd done," says Bill Holway, Reed's father.
"That's what I got back, and it's taken us years to get him back to where he is right now," he says. "I think that if you go over there and you put your life on the line, and you're hurt, there ought to be a compensation for that."
Holway counts himself lucky that he can work for his father, a building contractor in New Hampshire. His discharge makes it hard to find another job. With no VA health care, he's paying out of pocket for treatment of PTSD, which a civilian doctor diagnosed.
Cases like this present a dilemma, says retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, former vice chief of the Army. He says there's no perfect way to diagnose PTSD or TBI.
"We want to be able to determine whether a person demonstrating certain behavior, whether that's due to trauma of war or whether it is due to a person just not doing their job and not being a good soldier sailor, airman or Marine," he says.
Chiarelli said commanders agonize over the decision to pursue a bad discharge.
"It's an extremely difficult decision to make," he says. "Someone has gone to war with you, has served [and] comes back and starts getting into trouble. I would argue that 99.9 percent of commanders err on the side of the soldier, but folks take advantage of system," he says.
The Pentagon provided data on less-than-honorable discharges for this story but declined a request for an interview.
For some veterans with bad paper, it's worse than if they never served, says Phil Carter, an Iraq vet now at the Center for a New American Security.
"The nation's long had a social contract with its troops that says we will send you to war, and when you come home we will care for you," Carter says. "There's been this gap; this population that's gone to war and earned the benefits of that social contract, but for whatever reason had these benefits taken away."
Carter says vets who fall into that gap show up in high numbers among the homeless, drug and alcohol abusers and those with untreated PTSD. He says the longer they're left without help, the higher the cost to society.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
This week we bring you stories of veterans who served their country, but not always honorably. More than 100,000 over the past decade were discharged for misconduct. Many committed crimes or used drugs. They may pay a steep price since they are blocked by law from VA health benefits and more.
On one level that just seems obvious. They broke the rules. But then there's the question of why they broke the rules. Many link their conduct to combat trauma, saying they misbehaved because of the extreme conditions of their service, which raises the question of whether we as a nation owe these veterans something after all. Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Eric Highfill spent five years in the Navy, fixing airplanes for special operations forces. His discharge shows an Iraq's campaign medal, an Afghanistan campaign medal, a good conduct medal, that he's marksman with a pistol and sharpshooter with a rifle.
ERIC HIGHFILL: I deployed somewhere between nine and 11 times, six to eight weeks out, four to six weeks back, and it was a heavy rotation like that for a good three years.
LAWRENCE: None of that matters, because at the bottom, the paper reads "Discharged: under other than honorable conditions." Highfill says he got addicted to the painkillers he was taking for a knee injury. In the Navy's eyes, Highfill screwed up. He got a DUI, among other things, and so they kicked him out. And that means when he went to a VA medical center in Michigan, they did the same.
HIGHFILL: I went down to the Battle Creek VA. I had spoken with the receptionist. And she looked at my discharge and said, well, you have a bad discharge and they turned me away.
LAWRENCE: The VA confirmed Highfill's visit and claimed he was offered information on how to appeal his status. The VA can do its own evaluation of a veteran's service before making a decision to accept or reject a vet with so-called bad paper. Eric Highfill's story is consistent with dozens of other veterans interviewed for this series.
Many veterans with bad paper argue that their conduct was the result of post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, or traumatic brain injury, TBI. An Air Force veteran, Major Brendan Bailey, remembers the moment when his 10-year career crashed.
MAJOR BRENDAN BAILEY: We had just loaded up...
LAWRENCE: Bailey worked as a flight nurse evacuating wounded troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, until one very bad flight in October of 2008.
BAILEY: There was incoming fire. The aircraft was taxiing.
LAWRENCE: It was dark. There were incoming rockets and too many wounded. Bailey was strapping down the patients as the plane took off.
BAILEY: Then suddenly the aircraft banked and changed altitude so hard that I flew across the cabin, hit my head on a side wall.
LAWRENCE: He says he saw stars for a bit, then he shook it off and went back to the wounded. But he wasn't the same after that blow to the head.
BAILEY: A couple days later I was depressed. I got into a couple of fights. I was yelling at people. I was disrespectful. I wasn't doing my job anymore.
LAWRENCE: Around that time his bunkmate saw Bailey injecting himself with drugs. The MPs searched the bunk and found the medication kit from the plane. Bailey was court-martialed for theft and drug use. By the time of the trial he'd been diagnosed with TBI and PTSD. He got sentenced to three months in prison and dismissed from the Air Force.
More than 100,000 troops have received less than honorable discharges in the past decade of war, some for serious crimes, some for lapses in military discipline. Some have PTSD, some don't. These cases present a dilemma for the military.
GENERAL PETER CHIARELLI: I wish it was clear-cut.
LAWRENCE: Retired General Pete Chiarelli is former vice chief of the Army. He says there's no perfect way to diagnose PTSD or TBI.
CHIARELLI: We want to be able to determine whether a person demonstrating certain behavior, whether that is due to the trauma of war or whether it is due to a person just not doing their job and not being a good soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.
LAWRENCE: That's the choice. Bad soldier or traumatized soldier.
CHIARELLI: It's an extremely difficult decision to make. Someone has gone to war with you, has served, comes back and starts getting into trouble. And I would argue that 99.9 percent of the commanders err on the side of the soldier, but there are other folks who take advantage of the system. Don't let anybody kid you.
LAWRENCE: He said the incentive of an honorable discharge with all its benefits is critical to good order and discipline, and not everyone earns one. Carol Scott is the chair of military and veterans law at the Federal Bar Association. She's been handling cases of bad paper since the 1970s. She thinks the military leans toward blaming the soldiers and underplaying PTSD.
CAROL SCOTT: If they have PTSD, these alter behaviors and the behaviors that result are not acceptable to military discipline, and there have been way too many commanders that just want to get rid of these soldiers.
LAWRENCE: The Pentagon declined comment for this story. Now once discharged a veteran is someone else's problem. There's a huge array of veterans' service organizations to help.
BAILEY: Sure. It's all there for you if you have an honorable discharge.
LAWRENCE: Brandon Bailey, the vet who got injured on that medivac flight, says none of that is open to him.
BAILEY: Job programs, welcome home programs. But if you don't have an honorable discharge, you don't get any of it.
LAWRENCE: Bailey's marriage fell apart this year. He says he still suffers from chronic pain, depression and memory loss, which makes it hard to find a job. A bad discharge is like a scarlet letter. No VA home loan or GI bill for school. No VA medical care. Eric Highfill, the Navy vet who got turned away from the Michigan VA, he says when people see his bad paper, every door closes.
HIGHFILL: They don't want nothing to do with you. They won't give you a job. They don't want to help you out. The jobs I get are usually hard, hard labor jobs.
LAWRENCE: Highfill has no health insurance. He's been suicidal and he's still addicted to the painkillers that he says started the problem. He relies heavily on his mother, Karen, but she wants professional help.
KAREN: When we went down there to the VA and they turned him away, he said it was the hardest thing he ever had to do, 'cause he finally had to admit that he had a problem, and he said that was very hard to do, to tell people I got a problem.
HIGHFILL: It was rough being turned away, to be told no after I've been hiding it for two years and not acknowledging it and not admitting it because I don't want people to look at me differently. I realize it's wrong. I want the help, I need the help, because that's what's going to get me better.
LAWRENCE: The other than honorable discharge, legally, almost erases the fact that Eric Highfill ever went to war. The question is whether that's fair.
PHIL CARTER: The nation's long had a social contract with its troops.
LAWRENCE: Phil Carter is an Iraq vet now at the Center for a New American Security.
CARTER: We will send you to war, and when you come home, we will care for you. And so there's been this gap, this population that's gone to war and earned the benefits of their social contract, but for whatever reason have had those benefits taken away.
LAWRENCE: Carter says there are two ways to see it. Is basic care to those who have borne the battle, is that something you earn with an honorable discharge or is it a promise made the moment a man or woman volunteers to go fight the country's wars? Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.