SC veteran on mental health care: Looking back … I know I really needed it’
When Charles Smith came home after two years in Vietnam during one of the bloodiest periods of the conflict, he was a traumatized 21-year-old who needed help.
But all he could think about in 1968 was getting away from the military and “drinking myself to death.”
Smith — now 70 years old and living in Conway, S.C. — displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a condition that wasn’t formally recognized by the U.S. medical community until 1980. He dealt with his pain by going Absent Without Leave, or AWOL.
That action affected the rest of his life.
He received an “undesirable” discharge in 1971, which at the time was a subcategory of “less than honorable.” Smith’s mental state and his exposure to combat weren’t part of the evaluation.
That became a double injury, because the designation meant Smith would not be eligible to get medical or mental health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs, or any financial benefits like disability payments, housing loans and education.
He is among tens of thousands of veterans who have experienced that same type of military separation, even though they are often among the troops who need care the most. Veterans believe many of these discharges are undeserved and call them “bad paper.”
Recent veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have also found themselves subject to “bad paper” discharges and denied access to care for behavioral issues stemming from PTSD, despite the fact the illness is now officially recognized.
A Harvard University report in 2016 found that more than 125,000 veterans have received other than honorable discharges since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.
In 2017, Brown University researchers found these specific “other than honorable” discharges were “often the result of minor disciplinary infractions that are actually symptomatic of trauma sustained during military service,” including drug or alcohol abuse related to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When you’re nuts, you don’t know that you’re nuts. You have to be taught that there’s something wrong,” Smith said about himself and so many others. “What person in their right mind would serve the country honorably and then come back and go AWOL? I had to have been nuts.”
‘Just a kid’
Smith enlisted in the Army on May 1, 1967, when he was 18 years old. He never dreamed he’d actually go to war, imagining his father, at the time a high-ranking Pentagon official, would use his connections to get him out of it.
But by December 18 of that year, he was headed to Vietnam. Before he left, however, he spent a day training inside the burn unit at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas.
Smith recalled the bandaged men with injured limbs, moaning and groaning.
“You were scared before you went,” he said. “You’re traumatized before you go.”
Smith served in Vietnam with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade as an Army combat medic during the Tet Offensive. He saw a close friend get killed and watched soldiers “shooting bodies that were already dead.”
When Smith returned home from Vietnam, he was out of control. He was offered a post at the Walter Reed military medical center but refused: “I said, ‘I don’t want to see any more blood.’”
He spiraled downward until he took his last drink on July 8, 1991.
A native of Washington, D.C., Smith eventually sought treatment at the D.C. Vet Center, which advocates for combat veterans and provides care to returning service members whose “bad paper” discharges bar them from receiving federal compensation for social services.
There, he met Cary Smith — no relation — who until his recent retirement was the D.C. Vet Center director.
Cary Smith said many of the veterans who receive dishonorable discharges aren’t aware of the ramifications until much later on — and by then, it’s too late. Many of the veterans he has counseled said they didn’t challenge their discharges at the time because they just wanted to get out of the military and move on with their lives.
“When you’re a kid,” Cary Smith said, “you don’t understand that, ‘Hey, if I receive a bad discharge, I am not going to be able to hold a job.’”
Cary Smith also attributed “bad paper” discharges during the Vietnam War era to the government’s lack of appreciation for the trauma of combat and the readjustment upon return.
“When a guy comes back from Vietnam, where there was no rigid rules … (he’ll) come back into a unit in the states and they’ll start picking on him,” he said, referring to senior Army officials. “Maybe he won’t want to shine his brass anymore. He’s just done with the Army.”
Both African Americans, Charles Smith and Cary Smith served in Vietnam during the Civil Rights era, when racial tensions at home were also playing out overseas — and were only exacerbated by the tensions of war.
“Minorities receive a disproportionate share of less than honorable discharges,” the Government Accountability Office found in 1980.
Charles Smith credits his recovery from alcoholism, and his ability to live with PTSD, to ongoing mental health treatment and the “Friends of Bill Wilson” — a support group for alcoholics where he was first inspired to appeal his undesirable discharge.
He said this support system gave him the personal courage to appeal his “bad paper” discharge, and in 1999 he received a correction, which entitled him to benefits.
But Smith is still fighting for compensation dating back to the time of his separation from the Army in 1971. The VA is insisting on only recognizing his benefits going back to 1993, and Smith said he has never been able to find out why.
Because his journey was so difficult, Smith understands why other veterans give up trying to correct their discharge.
“(The VA) will tell you they had to deny your allocation simply because you’ve been out of the military for more than 15 years, and the only way you can get a discharge change is to get a military correction,” Smith said. “So you’re waiting around three or four years ... and then you get a decision saying you gotta start a whole new process,” he said.
“It’s taking time. That’s more suffering mentally, physically and spiritually, really, because you still will continue to drink or use drugs or whatever you want to escape,” he continued. “And most folks get discouraged, because they’re taking ‘No’ for an answer.”
Various veterans advocacy organizations and elected officials have pressed the Pentagon to take the service members’ experience into account before issuing a discharge.
Lawmakers and advocates also want the Pentagon to speed the time it takes for a veteran to be able to appeal a discharge characterization, potentially to get access to life-saving medical care.
In response, the VA has started opening up some services on a limited basis to veterans with
“other than honorable” discharges. Those veterans can now seek care for mental health emergencies at VA centers for a period of up to 90 days.
Some members of Congress have tried to provide eligible veterans with additional routes to appeal “bad paper” discharges, which could open the doors to thousands of veterans receiving access to care.
Legislation to accomplish this goal was at one point very recently tucked into a larger bill, the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. However, U.S. senators removed the language before passing the measure out of their chamber in June, bowing to concerns about the potential costs of extending full benefits to previously excluded veterans.
“We are extremely disappointed,” said Kris Goldsmith, the associate director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America, a nonprofit organization.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper was asked during his confirmation hearing if he would review the issue of “bad paper” discharges and the time it takes to appeal them.
“I spent my time in war. I know the impacts,” said Esper, a former Army Ranger who served with the 101st Airborne Division during the 1991 Gulf War. “The bureaucracy on these things (appeals) is terrible. We need to just go after it hard. Particularly in matters involving life and health.”
Smith knows he’s not alone, but it doesn’t make it any easier.
“A lot of folks chose not to go, didn’t go — deferments and things,” Smith said “But I went. I served in the Army, honorably, and all this combat, and come back home and got bad papers where I could not get no benefits. None.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the dates of service Charles Smith served in Vietnam.