Former Connecticut soldier wins upgraded discharge fight with the Army

A former soldier in Connecticut has won an eight-year fight against the Army to upgrade his discharge status from general to honorable.

Steve Kennedy of Fairfield, who is one of two lead plaintiffs in a proposed nationwide class action lawsuit against the Army over its handling of discharge upgrades for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, received word late last week that his discharge had been upgraded. The other lead plaintiff in the suit, Alicia Carson, formerly of Southington, who was called to active duty with the U.S. Army in 2010 in Afghanistan and was a member of Connecticut Army National Guard, received a discharge upgrade in the fall of 2017.

Kennedy was in the midst of work on a proposal in the Connecticut General Assembly to provide state veteran benefits to veterans with other than honorable discharges who have PTSD or experienced military sexual trauma when he got the email from the Army, which he initially thought was spam.

"I'd given up hope that it'd ever happen," Kennedy, team leader of the Connecticut chapter of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America, said by phone early Monday evening. He noted the Army Discharge Review Board, which reviews discharge upgrade requests, recognized in its decision that "there's a connection between the way I got out and my combat service."

Kennedy grew up in Monroe and joined the Army in May 2006, deploying to Iraq in June 2007, where his unit was responsible for disrupting al-Qaeda in Iraq supply lines.

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

A military doctor diagnosed him with major depressive disorder, but said that the Army didn't have the resources to treat him. He was given a "general" discharge and dismissed from the Army on July 27, 2009. After he got out of the Army, he was diagnosed with PTSD by the Department of Veterans Affairs, he said.

"That doesn't negate all of the positive impact that I did have. That isn't a basis for judging the entirety of my service," Kennedy said, of the general discharge.

Kennedy applied for a discharge upgrade several times, first in 2010, but was denied. Initially, he sued the Army individually, but amended his suit and refiled a proposed federal class-action with Carson in April 2017.

The plaintiffs plan to continue with the proposed class action because they say there are tens of thousands of Army vets who received other-than-honorable discharges allegedly for behavior later attributed to PTSD or other mental health conditions. An other-than-honorable discharge, commonly referred to as a bad paper discharge, usually makes a veteran ineligible for most state and federal veterans' benefits. Advocates say that cuts vets off from resources that could help them.

Kennedy said he hoped the lawsuit would put pressure on the Army to change its discharge practices and on the review board to properly adjudicate these cases.

The plaintiffs are being represented by law student interns in Yale Law School's Veterans Legal Services Clinic.

j.bergman@theday.com

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