Lawsuit: Pentagon withholding info from veterans' advocates

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NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A veterans group said the Pentagon has stopped releasing information that helps former service members to contest less-than-honorable discharges from the military.

The Defense Department has been breaking the law since April, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court in Virginia by the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

The group says it lacks access to decisions made by military review boards. The boards grant or deny a veteran's request to upgrade a less-than-honorable discharge. Veterans’ lawyers study those decisions in hopes of building successful arguments for their clients.

The lawsuit comes at a time of growing recognition that a less-than-honorable discharge can stem from behaviors brought on by post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries. Liberal consideration is supposed to be given to veterans with combat-related mental health conditions and to those who were sexually assaulted while in the military.

Lawyers and veterans' advocates "often look" at the past decisions of military review boards, said Bart Stichman, executive director of the organization that filed the lawsuit.

“These decisions are redacted to protect privacy," he added. "You don’t see the name of the veteran who has PTSD or other personal information.”

Lisa Lawrence, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department, said in an email that the military is “reviewing the complaint and will consult with the Department of Justice on an appropriate response to this lawsuit.”

Dana Montalto, a clinical instructor at Harvard Law School's Veterans Legal Clinic, backed up the lawsuit's claim that discharge decisions have not been available.

She said there are thousands of decisions going back at least 15 years. She said the lack of information hampers veterans' efforts to change their discharge statuses and to get more help.

Veterans can lose some or all of the benefits that are available depending on the level of their discharge status.

“It would shock many people to learn that veterans are waiting years to get a decision from a review board, during which time they’re often shut out from receiving critical healthcare and support services that they desperately need,” she said.

Montalto said military review boards have made significant efforts to account for mental health conditions. And requests that would not have been granted a decade ago are now being approved, she said.

But she said success rates are still too low and that more needs to be done.

“It may be surprising to know that post-9/11 vets have the highest rate of receiving less-than-honorable discharges than any era of veterans," she said. “This generation is no less honorable and has notably volunteered.”

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