Judge orders Army to review discharge status of two CT vets

Steve Kennedy, left, is seen with fellow Army soldier Austin Tarantino in this undated photo from Iraq. (Courtesy of Steve Kennedy)
Steve Kennedy, left, is seen with fellow Army soldier Austin Tarantino in this undated photo from Iraq. (Courtesy of Steve Kennedy)

Bridgeport — A Connecticut judge is asking the Army to reconsider its denial to upgrade the discharge status of two Connecticut former soldiers, who allege that they, and tens of thousands of Army veterans across the country, received less than honorable discharges for behavior later attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions.

Judge Warren Eginton of the U.S. District Court of Connecticut on Tuesday directed the Army to review the claims of Steve Kennedy, 31, and Alicia Carson, 28, and report back to the court within 90 days.

Kennedy, of Fairfield, who served in the Army, and Alicia Carson, who served in the Army and the Connecticut Army National Guard but now lives in Alaska, filed a class-action lawsuit on April 17 in U.S. District Court in Bridgeport on behalf of approximately 60,000 less-than-honorably discharged post 9/11 Army veterans with PTSD.

The suit claims that the Army "routinely" fails to treat soldiers' serious mental health conditions, and instead gives them less-than-honorable discharges, "often because of infractions related to mental health crises."

Veterans with these kinds of discharges are usually ineligible for crucial health and retirement benefits and for state benefits such as property tax exemptions. And the discharges also can make it difficult for veterans to get a job.

Kennedy returned from a yearlong deployment in Iraq with severe PTSD and depression that the Army did not adequately diagnose or treat, according to the suit.

"Rather than giving veterans with PTSD the treatment they need, the Army is kicking them out and denying them benefits that would help make them whole," Kennedy said in a statement.

After he got back from Iraq, Kennedy abused alcohol, self-mutilated and began having suicidal thoughts despite leading his team to top performance marks, the suit alleges. He didn't seek help because he feared being labeled weak and losing the trust of members of his unit, the lawsuit says. After being told he could not take leave to attend his own wedding, Kennedy went absent without leave, or AWOL.

He was given a "general" discharge and dismissed from the Army on July 27, 2009. The Army board twice rejected Kennedy's requests to upgrade his discharge status.

Initially, Kennedy, who is the Connecticut team leader for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, sued individually, but amended his suit and refiled a federal class-action. It has yet to be classified as a class-action lawsuit, and that effort is on hold while the Army performs its review.

A 2014 memo from then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was supposed to make it easier for veterans like Kennedy and Carson to upgrade their discharge status. The memo directed review boards to give liberal consideration to PTSD-based applications. A class-action lawsuit filed by Vietnam combat veterans also seeking to upgrade their discharges due to PTSD, led, in part, to the Hagel memo being released. Eginton also was the judge in that case.

In a statement, Kennedy said the Army review board "has systematically failed in its duty of correcting inequitable discharges, furthering the injustice against us and compounding the stigma around mental health in the military."

The Department of Defense issued guidance in August to clarify Hagel's 2014 memo, explaining that the liberal consideration policy includes conditions resulting from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, sexual assault or sexual harassment.

Carson, a former Southington resident, deployed to Afghanistan with the Army in early 2010 and within five months was promoted from assistant gunner to gunner. Her command also recommended she be placed in a Special Forces unit, the suit says.

When she returned to the U.S., Carson was diagnosed by clinicians from the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs with PTSD and traumatic brain injury. She got a doctor's note excusing her from drills, but the National Guard gave her a general discharge because of her absences, the suit says.

The lawsuit seeks to upgrade Kennedy and Carson's discharges to honorable and to compel the Army to fairly adjudicate PTSD applications.

Kennedy and Carson are represented by law student interns Jordan Goldberg, Catherine McCarthy, Jonathan Petkun, Giovanni Sanchez and Helen White, and supervising attorneys Aaron Wenzloff and Michael Wishnie of the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic.

j.bergman@theday.com

READER COMMENTS

Loading comments...
Hide Comments