Tens of thousands of soldiers who are discharged from the military each year are locked out of VA services.
About a year later, while suffering from posttraumatic-stress disorder from the assault, Lewis received what he says was a misdiagnosis of personality disorder instead of PTSD. He was dismissed from the military without an honorable discharge.
Lewis, who received a general discharge under honorable conditions, is one of the tens of thousands of service members who leave the military each year with something other than an honorable discharge. Without it, they are ineligible for some or all of a sliding scale of VA benefits, which can include education, health care, and disability compensation.
The Pentagon says that the majority of soldiers—about 77 percent—do receive an honorable discharge. But more than 600,000 received a lesser rating between fiscal years 2000 and 2013, according to a Defense Department breakdown.
These soldiers often feel left behind by the government and find it very hard to get the full benefits they believe they have earned.
"Basically what people view it as is walking down an equal flight of stairs, where honorable is at the top, dishonorable is at the bottom, and it's equal gradations the entire way. And that's not the case, at all," said Lewis, who was eventually correctly diagnosed with PTSD but still is denied education benefits to help cover his law school expenses. "Basically, it's a long step down from honorable to general. It's kind of like falling down a flight or two of stairs to get to the next level [other-than-honorable]. And then you're into the court-martial discharges, which is like falling down an elevator shaft."
And the level of categorization—along with the reason for discharge—can impact what VA benefits are available.
Service members who do not receive honorable discharges can try to get their benefits back in two ways: through the VA, or through the Pentagon.
Separately, soldiers can also try to get their discharge status changed after they leave the military through Pentagon boards, but they face an uphill climb, with estimates of successful upgrades at less than 10 percent.
"These discharges are extremely hard to correct after the fact.... The batting average for veterans getting corrections is in the single digits," said Phillip Carter, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based defense think tank. " ... In absence of really compelling evidence from the veterans, the board members are going to presume that everything was done right by the service. And it's really hard for veterans to overcome that, so it usually has to be some clear policy change."
And getting a non-honorable discharge can have impacts well beyond the government world of VA and military benefits, making it more difficult for these veterans to find civilian employment after they leave the service.
"This is a hard question I think the military is wrestling with … essentially how to exercise that judgment at the moment of discharge," Carter said. "... There's this vast category in the middle where I think the military is adopting a more humanitarian approach toward it's own."
Overall, the number of honorable and general discharges has increased over the past decade, and the number of other-than-honorable conditions, bad conduct, and dishonorable discharges have declined, according to Pentagon numbers.
"The overwhelming majority of our service members are tremendous professionals. There will always be those who don't meet the standards we set, and when they do, we hold them accountable," Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, a spokesperson for the Defense Department, said in an email. "Trust is the foundation for everything we do as military professionals, and we expect our service members to conduct themselves with integrity and character from accession to retirement."
And though many service members who receive something other than an honorable discharge are largely overlooked, there is some hope for those—like Lewis—who believe they were wrongly discharged while suffering from PTSD.
The Pentagon announced earlier this month that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is ordering the discharge review boards to give "liberal consideration" to upgrade requests, including from service members who were diagnosed with PTSD by a civilian doctor or those that can prove they suffered from at least one PTSD-related symptom. These symptoms can include nightmares, flashbacks, changes in personality, sleeping disorders, and suicidal thoughts.
Veterans advocates hope the new Pentagon policy, which is expected to be implemented by late October, could lead to getting help for those veterans who may not currently qualify for VA care because of a less than honorable discharge.
"The end goal for anything in this sort of realm is that it really needs to be a standardized streamlined process that is veterans-centric," said Lauren Augustine, the legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "... The DOD is moving toward that, they have been moving toward that, and we'll ensure they continue moving toward that."
This article appears in the September 15, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.