Testimony on Resolution Supporting Fairness for Veterans Act

On Friday, October 28, 2016, the NYC Veterans Alliance presented testimony at a hearing of the NYC Council Committee on Veterans regarding Resolution 1196, urging Congress to pass, and the President to sign into law, the Fairness for Veterans Act of 2016. Below is the testimony delivered by Kristen Rouse:

Below is the prepared testimony entered into record:

My name is Kristen L. Rouse. I am a veteran of the United States Army, I served three tours of duty in Afghanistan, and I live in Brooklyn. I am testifying on behalf of the more than 200 dues-paying members of the NYC Veterans Alliance, several of whom were discharged from the military under less-than-honorable conditions, also known as “bad paper” discharges.  

In May of this year, the NYC Veterans Alliance presented Councilman Ulrich with a draft of a proposed resolution in support of Fairness for Veterans legislation, and we again urged you to push this forward in September when it came up again in Washington. We are pleased to see that this committee has at last taken up support of this important bill that proposes critical help for veterans currently excluded from VA services and who are most at risk for homelessness, substance abuse, incarceration, and suicide. We strongly support this resolution, and encourage all members of our community to voice their support both locally and nationally.

During my more than 22 combined years of service in the Army Reserve, Army National Guard, and Regular Army, I saw firsthand how any given unit or commander may subjectively choose to treat the behavior of a soldier deemed a “problem,” even with the best of intentions. Commanders may be men and women of impeccable integrity, but most are simply not versed in the causes and treatment of mental health conditions, especially those related to traumatic stress, sexual assault, or other circumstances that may affect troops during their military service. The result is that service members are too often discharged unfairly under a less-than-honorable status that negatively impacts them for the rest of their lives. Simply put—honorable service does not always result in an honorable discharge. Our veterans, at a minimum, deserve proper review of their discharge circumstances and access to the help they need to continue on in their lives.

Since 2001, more than 300,000 troops—13% of our fighting force— have been discharged from the military with less-than-honorable discharges,[1] rendering them ineligible for many, if not all, veterans benefits and services, including VA healthcare. Three out of four veterans with bad paper discharges who served in combat and have post-traumatic stress disorder are denied eligibility by the VA.[2] Veterans with less-than-honorable discharges[3] are more likely to suffer from substance abuse issues,[4] become homeless,[5] become incarcerated,[6] and go for years without treatment for the physical and mental wounds of war.[7] Veterans with bad paper discharges are three times more likely to die by suicide,[8] and preliminary evidence collected by VA suggests that there are decreased rates of suicide among veterans receiving VA health care as opposed to veterans who do not.[9]

The system is currently stacked against “bad paper” veterans. If veterans want to fight their discharge status, the burden of proof is on them to give evidence that their behavior was related to PTSD, traumatic brain injury, or military sexual trauma, which is often impossible to document.[10]

The Fairness for Veterans Act of 2016 (H.R. 4683 / S. 1567), a bipartisan bill sponsored by Representative Mike Coffman (R-CO) and Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), [11] and currently co-sponsored by more than 25 legislators, would create a presumption in favor of the combat veteran during the post-discharge appeals process, meaning that if a veteran was deployed to a combat zone and diagnosed by a mental healthcare professional as experiencing PTSD or TBI as a result of their deployment, the military’s Discharge Review Boards (DRB) must consider this diagnosis with a rebuttable presumption in favor of the veteran.[12]

Fairness for Veterans would address medical evidence reviews in the case of a veteran who served in combat and was subsequently diagnosed for post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury, or a veteran who has contested their discharge status in whole or in part because of post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury related to combat or military sexual trauma.

Fairness for Veterans would also mandate the review of medical evidence of the Department of Veterans Affairs or a civilian health care provider presented by the veteran, and review the case with a rebuttable presumption in favor of the veteran that post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury materially contributed to the circumstances resulting in a bad paper discharge.

For these reasons, we support in the strongest terms possible this resolution in support of the Fairness for Veterans Act, and we urge this committee to move on this without further delay.

On behalf of the NYC Veterans Alliance, I thank you for the opportunity to testify today. Pending your questions, this concludes my testimony.