Committee changes bill that would expand benefits to vets with PTSD, brain injuries
Hartford — Supporters of a proposal, which would enable certain veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury to receive state benefits, are discouraged by changes made to the proposed bill that, they say, effectively kill the bill's chances of being passed this session.
House Bill 5580, introduced by state Rep. Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield, in its originally proposed form, would've allowed vets, who received an "other than honorable discharge" as a result of being diagnosed with PTSD or TBI, to qualify for state veterans' benefits.
The Veterans Affairs' Committee, to which the bill was assigned, changed the language so that it now calls for a study of how many of these vets exist, how much it would cost to provide benefits to them and how that process would be executed.
Rep. Jack Hennessy, D-Bridgeport, co-chair of the veterans committee, said members were concerned that the original proposal would've put the state in a position of making a connection between a vets' diagnosis of PTSD or TBI and his or her so-called "bad paper" discharge.
The revised language was incorporated into a different bill, House Bill 7177, which seeks a more generalized study of the mental health needs of veterans and members of the military. The bill now goes to the House floor for consideration.
"We decided to keep it alive as a study and to move it forward without putting the state government in the middle of this against the federal government," Hennessy said.
State Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Sean Connolly put out a statement in early February about the original bill, saying, "It is a highly involved process to determine whether a discharge was based on conduct resulting from undiagnosed or untreated PTS or TBI. Thus such a determination should remain at the federal level as the state does not have the specialized boards of review to make such a determination and also has no authority to alter the character of discharge leaving the Veteran still to go through the federal process."
But those who worked on the original bill don't think a study will do much, and say they are not asking the state to make a determination as to whether a veterans' diagnosis of PTSD or TBI was the reason for their other than honorable discharge.
"I appreciate the fact that they are at least addressing the issue," said Harding, who introduced the original bill. "We have enough knowledge to know that there is a problem here and generally I don't think a study is going to be helpful. A study is going to simply flesh out what we already know."
He said he was hopeful he can still work with the committee and the legislature as a whole to see through substantive changes to what he originally proposed.
Thomas Burke, a former Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, has advocated for this issue on the national level and brought it to Harding's attention.
"I'm very upset because honestly a year of research is going to waste taxpayer money and we're going to come back and be in the same place," Burke said.
Burke, who himself received an other than honorable discharge for smoking marijuana while stationed in Afghanistan, said that despite his discharge status, he has been able to receive certain federal veterans benefits. He later was diagnosed with PTSD.
"My ability to receive benefits allowed me to go to school. It allowed me to find a community, and reminded me of the mission of why I went to fight for this country in the first place," he said.
But according to Connecticut, Burke said, he's not a veteran.
Although eligibility varies by program, most veterans' benefits in Connecticut are only available to a veteran who was honorably discharged or released under honorable conditions from active duty in the armed forces.
In Connecticut, veterans who served at least 90 cumulative days on active duty in the U.S. armed forces during a time of war are eligible for certain benefits not available to veterans without wartime service, such as local property tax exemptions.
"If you are a veteran who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan and came home to Connecticut and saw your legislators had an opportunity to pass a bill to help you and they don't do it, that's going to alienate you even more from this society you're trying to reintegrate into," Burke said.
About one-third of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered from PTSD or TBI in the line of service, said Jonathan Petkun, a Juris Doctor candidate at Yale Law School and a member of Yale's Veterans Legal Services Clinic. Petkun is also a former Marine officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We also know that PTSD and TBI, in many cases, directly leads to behavior that leads to bad paper discharges," Petkun said.
"Victims of both conditions can suffer from extreme emotional, mental and physical behaviors ranging from going AWOL to self-medicating with drugs and alcohol," he testified at a public hearing of the veterans committee last month.
Petkun and Jonathan Cohen, also a Juris Doctor candidate at Yale and member of the clinic, conducted research into the impact of Rep. Harding's bill and wrote the draft language that was submitted to the veterans committee. They found that nearly 800 veterans could be affected by the bill.
Cohen emphasized the significant impact that this bill could have for "one of Connecticut's most vulnerable populations," and said the bill would not result in a huge cost to the state, which is facing a $1.7 billion deficit. As bills go through the legislative process, a fiscal analysis is done.
As far as implementation, they say that a veteran, when applying for state benefits, would have to provide paperwork from the federal Veterans Administration showing a diagnosis of PTSD or TBI. The bill was not intended to discourage veterans from going through the appeal process to upgrade their discharge, Petkun said, and he and Cohen hope veterans continue to do so. The Yale clinic has helped veterans in this pursuit.
Veterans can apply to upgrade their discharge status with military record correction boards. In 2014, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel directed those boards to give "liberal consideration" to discharges that can be linked to PTSD and related conditions. However, the Yale clinic has found the process remains slow, unpredictable and difficult to navigate.
"A big part of this bill was to correct that," said Steve Kennedy, Connecticut team leader for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which also worked on the bill.
Kennedy, a U.S. Army infantryman who served in Iraq, said there's enough evidence connecting PTSD and TBI with actions that lead to bad paper discharges that the state should give veterans the benefit of the doubt in awarding benefits in these cases.
"You're already dealing with people with an elevated risk of suicide. You're cutting them off from benefits and resources that could help them," Kennedy said.
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