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Connecticut vet sues over discharges for those with mental health problems

New Haven — A Connecticut veteran has filed a class-action lawsuit over the Army's alleged failure to address the so-called "bad paper" discharges that he and tens of thousands of other vets received after showing signs of post-traumatic-stress disorder and other mental health disorders.

The suit, filed by Steve Kennedy of Fairfield, who served as an Army infantryman, 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."

Kennedy, members of the Yale Clinic, and U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., held a news conference in New Haven Monday to announce the lawsuit. Kennedy, 30, and former Connecticut resident Alicia Carson, 28, who served in the U.S. Army and the Connecticut Army National Guard, are the lead plaintiffs. Carson now lives in Alaska.

"As my PTSD became impossible to manage on my own, my commander told me that the only way I could receive treatment was by leaving the Army with a bad paper discharge," said Kennedy, who is the leader of the Connecticut chapter of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Just like that, the Army wiped away years of distinguished service to my country and deemed it less than Honorable."

Initially, Kennedy sued individually, but amended his suit and refiled a federal class-action.

Tens of thousands of vets from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan received less-than-honorable discharges as a result of misconduct attributable to PTSD and traumatic brain injury, according to the Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic, which has helped former service members seeking to upgrade their discharge status.

Vets with these kinds of discharges are usually ineligible for crucial health and retirement benefits and are not usually eligible for state benefits such as property tax exemptions. And the discharges can also make it difficult for vets to get a job.

The issue has garnered national attention in recent years, including from former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who in a 2014 memo, directed the discharge review boards to give "liberal consideration" to PTSD-based applications. The appeals process remains slow and still results in a large number of denials, according to the Yale clinic.

The Army Discharge Review Board "routinely and callously denies veterans that raise mental health as a factor in their applications," said Jonathan Petkun, a law student with the Yale clinic.

Kennedy joined the Army in 2006, deploying to Iraq from June 2007 to July 2008 as a Humvee turret gunner and machine gun operator. He provided route clearance and security for a supply convoy between western and central Iraq, where his unit's convoys regularly hit or discovered improvised explosive devices. His unit was later responsible for disrupting Al Qaeda supply lines through the desert villages in the Anbar and Saladin Provinces.

Despite fairly rapid promotions and being assigned leadership roles at a young age, as well as receiving numerous military service medals, Kennedy began to exhibit symptoms of PTSD when he returned from Iraq.

He abused alcohol, self-mutilated and began having suicidal thoughts. 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.

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

j.bergman@theday.com

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