Former CT National Guard soldier wins fight to upgrade discharge

A former Connecticut Army National Guard soldier has won a fight to upgrade her discharge status to honorable.

Alicia Carson, who grew up in Southington, was one of the lead plaintiffs pursuing a class-action lawsuit against the Army on behalf of approximately 60,000 Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans who allege they received less than honorable discharges for behavior later attributed to post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions.

Reached by phone Friday afternoon, Carson said she was cautiously optimistic about the upgrade based on information given by her lawyers, but had not yet received the paperwork.

"If it all ends up being true and corrected, I'm ecstatic that it happened. But it also saddens me knowing how many people have been fighting for it and don't get it, as well as how many people gave up and just didn't fight," Carson said. "I never once thought this was what I was going to have be fighting for."

While Carson received an upgrade, the lawsuit still is proceeding forward to address what the plaintiffs' lawyers see as underlying problems with military review boards in considering PTSD-based applications. The other lead plaintiff in the suit, Steve Kennedy, 31, of Fairfield, who served in the Army and is the Connecticut team leader for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, is still awaiting a response from the Army, which is reconsidering his request for an upgrade.

Carson enlisted in the National Guard in 2008, a decision inspired by her grandparents who served in the Army during World War II. She was called to active duty with the U.S. Army in 2010 in Afghanistan, where she carried out more than 100 missions as the only woman in her Special Forces unit, according to her lawyers. Carson, 29, now lives in Alaska, where she is studying natural science at the University of Alaska Anchorage and works two jobs.

Carson received an honorable discharge from the Army for her service in Afghanistan. But back home, while continuing to serve in the National Guard, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury by clinicians from the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, and began experiencing the effects of both. She got a doctor's note excusing her from drills, but the National Guard gave her a general discharge because of her absences, according to her lawyers.

Getting a general discharge "discredited everything I did in the military," said Carson, who actively fought to upgrade her status since being discharged in June 2012.

"There were plenty of times when I was unsure if it was still worth it," she added.

The adjutant general of the Connecticut National Guard, Thaddeus Martin, ultimately upgraded her characterization of service. She received the honorable discharge on Oct. 23, according to her lawyers, who said Martin wrote in a letter that he was "basing my decision upon recommendations made by her former commanders, my Staff Judge Advocate, a review of her service record and in recognition that her service-related disability may have contributed to her misconduct."

Carson's honorable discharge entitles her to federal and state veterans benefits not previously available to her because of her general discharge.

"While it's terrific news, vets shouldn't need two teams of lawyers and a class-action lawsuit to get the discharge they're entitled to," said Jordan Goldberg, one of the law student interns at Yale University representing the plaintiffs in the pending lawsuit.

The former soldiers also are being represented by law student interns 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

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