2 words on a vet's discharge papers can be the difference between hope and homelessness

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As the push to find housing for all of L.A.’s homeless military veterans hurls towards a summer deadline, service providers say they’re running into one type of vet over and over again: someone who’s been discharged with “bad papers.” 

Translation: they got kicked out of the military without an Honorable Discharge.
 
According to data obtained by KPCC from the Defense Manpower Data Center, more than 615,000 Army, Navy, Marine, and Air Force veterans were discharged with less-than-honorable discharges from 1990-2015. 
 
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Co.) is a retired Marine officer and said that high a number is “very alarming.” 
 
“I mean, I think the numbers are staggering.”
 
Coffman says in his day, a servicemember caught for a minor offense might’ve been denied the chance to reenlist, but would not have been kicked out with bad paperwork that denied them benefits afterwards.
 
There’s a range of discharges below the level of honorable— and they can be awarded after conviction by a courts-martial for felonies as well as by non-judicial administrative boards for misdemeanor-level misconduct. 
 
Among other things, bad paper can be a pathway to homelessness, according to a recent study by the Department of Veterans Affairs. 
 
Researchers attempting to find factors that contribute to veteran homelessness discovered that bad paper makes a veteran five to seven times more likely to fall into homelessness. 
 
In Los Angeles, those who work with the homeless have seen that firsthand.  
 
“There is a direct correlation between those who left with bad paper and who ends up homeless on our streets,” said Melissa Tyner, an attorney who runs the Homeless Veterans Project based near L.A.’s Skid Row. 
 
Tyner says the current military disciplinary system "is, in many ways, creating an underclass of veterans."
 
And, some experts say, the system isn’t fair.  

 

Discharge characterizations range from "honorable" to "general, under honorable conditions," "other than honorable," "bad conduct," and finally "dishonorable." Without an honorable discharge, the V.A. progressively reduces the benefits vets can receive—all the way down to zero in the case of a "dishonorable discharge" awarded at a court martial.
 
For Pasadena native Michael Bullers, his was somewhere in the middle.
 
Until recently, Bullers was homeless on L.A.’s streets.
 
An Eagle Scout in his teens, Bullers started smoking marijuana recreationally, and decided to join the Navy to "grow up" a bit.
 
He served aboard an aircraft carrier during the first Gulf War in 1991, but he never really stopped doing drugs even though he knew full well that doing so was against the law. 
 
Bullers tested positive for cocaine following a random urinalysis. He was punished but allowed to stay in the service. And just two weeks before the end of his enlistment, he "popped positive" for drugs again.
 
Instead of just letting him run out his last few days and receive an "honorable" discharge, his chain of command decided to kick him out -- with a bad paper discharge.
 
When Bullers was kicked out the Navy in 1993, the Navy separated more than 8,500 other sailors with bad paper.
 
Retired Marine lawyer James Weirick said that in Bullers’ case, the Navy didn’t need to be so harsh. 
 
"There wasn’t really a requirement for the Navy to take such a severe action because of the long-term consequences that he would face," he said. 

Moreover, Weirick said there's little consistency to who gets an other-than-honorable discharge (OTH). Numbers vary greatly by service and over time. 

"Across the services we don't have a uniform standard for an OTH," he said. "And I can understand the services differ on their desire for either more or less discipline, but that shouldn’t determine what that servicemember gets later as far as medical and other assistance."

The Pentagon declined repeated interview requests for this story, but said in an email that the system is fair and provides due process.

There is some legislative appetite for change.  

Coffman has introduced legislation that would give mental health care services back to veterans with bad paper.

"Given the number of homeless I just think it’s very important for a veteran, irrespective of discharge, to have access to mental health care," he said. 
 
In addition to mental health care, many vets like Bullers aren't eligible for housing voucher programs through the Veterans Administration because of their discharge.
 
Bullers is appealing his discharge—a process that can take years and is known for low success rates. 
 
Bullers has housing now—a place he found with the help of a homeless service provider New Directions in El Monte. But he still wants his papers cleaned up. 
 
"I had spent 4 years of my life with the government," Bullers says. "And I want people to be proud of me."

This story is a part of the American Homefront Project — a joint effort of KPCC, KUOW and WUNC — reporting on American military life and veterans.

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