More than 20,000 men and women have left the Army and Marines in the last four years with other-than-honorable discharges, jeopardizing their benefits and leaving some of them struggling to find treatment for health problems.
Jarrid Starks, a troubled Army veteran who received the Bronze Star for Valor but was dismissed from service with an other-than-honorable discharge, has been granted health-care benefits by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Starks was featured in an Aug. 12 Seattle Times story that examined the plight of veterans whose other-than-honorable discharges have put their veteran's benefits at risk.
Starks had been told that it might take a year or more for the VA to undertake a review to see if he is eligible for benefits.
However, Starks, who requested the review in late May, received the VA decision on Aug. 31.
"I was really happy to get the news," said Starks, who was stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and now lives in Salem, Ore. "They are already calling me and getting me set up with health-care appointments."
Starks, who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a twisted vertebra and a possible traumatic brain injury before leaving the service.
But during his last year in the Army, he repeatedly went AWOL and smoked marijuana. He ended up leaving the military last spring with an other-than-honorable discharge in lieu of a court-martial, and 90 days' worth of prescription medication to treat his PTSD and other ailments.
Under federal law, the VA can review the cases of other-than-honorably discharged veterans to determine whether they are worthy of health care and disability benefits.
Nationally, VA officials have said they don't know the average time it takes to process those claims.
In Portland, where Starks' application was reviewed, it takes an average of five to six months, according to Kevin Kalama, the acting assistant administrator in that city's regional office. In Starks' case, he waived his 60-day due process, allowing the VA to make a quicker decision.
Starks was in the Army for more than seven years. The VA, according to documents obtained by The Seattle Times, concluded that Starks completed his first term of service honorably and can receive health care and disability benefits for that initial enlistment.
The VA determined that Starks' second term of service, a period in which he was awarded the Bronze Star, represented dishonorable service due to a pattern of willful and persistent misconduct. Because of that ruling, Starks will not be eligible for disability compensation for any injuries suffered during that period, although he can receive treatment for them.
Starks is among the more than 20,000 men and women who left the Army and Marines during the past four years with other-than-honorable discharges.
Many of the veterans who receive such discharges served in combat zones. Then, upon their return, they took drugs, went AWOL or engaged in other misconduct.
Some appeared to be relatively stable before they left for Iraq or Afghanistan.
Others had struggles that began long before they entered the military, and their lives unraveled further after serving in a war zone.
Another soldier's story
Joseph Weeks was one of those soldiers. He qualified for Army service despite drug abuse during his teenage years and dropping out of high school.
When he was 18, Weeks served in Iraq with a Joint Base Lewis-McChord brigade that arrived there in the summer of 2007, according to his Army records.
Weeks told The Seattle Times that after he returned to Lewis-McChord, his relations soured with other soldiers. He eventually got into a fight with another soldier that resulted in a seven-month prison term. After his release, he went AWOL, living for more than a year in Tennessee, where he had family.
"I felt like I only had three options. Kill the people who were messing with me. Kill myself. Or leave. So I left," Weeks told The Times in a July interview.
After Weeks returned to Lewis-McChord, he was repeatedly hospitalized at Madigan Army Medical Center. There, he attempted to hang himself in a hospital bathroom.
In January 2012 he was diagnosed with PTSD, several other mental disorders and substance-abuse problems, as well as suicidal ideation, according to medical records reviewed by The Times.
In April 2012, after more than five years in the Army, he was given an other-than-honorable-discharge that prevented him from obtaining VA health-care benefits.
Matt Rinaldi, an attorney who represented Weeks, did not know if the veteran had applied for a VA review to try to obtain health-care benefits.
In interviews in July with The Times, Weeks, 23, said he was trying to rebuild his life, training as a plumber. It's unclear whether he had applied to the VA to have his benefits reinstated.
But on Aug. 8, Weeks threatened to kill himself, prompting a call to the police in Morristown, Tenn. Police responded to the call and report that Weeks, while arguing with his girlfriend, refused orders to put down his weapon. They then shot him, according to a police report.
"Joey truly had a heart of gold, and he was so proud of all he did accomplish while in the Army and in Iraq serving his country," said Phyllis Weeks, who raised Weeks from the age of 4 and considered him her son. "Joey's life shouldn't have ended this soon and most definitely should not have ended in the manner in which everything happened."
Elizabeth Stinson, of Portland, Weeks' civilian trauma-treatment therapist, says she spoke with the young veteran three days before he died and had no indication he might be suicidal.
She said Weeks was given "a powerful cocktail of medications" before being discharged, and that releasing him without health benefits "was a formula for disaster."
By Hal Bernton, Seattle Times staff reporter
September 9, 2012
Austin Jenkins, Olympia correspondent for the public radio Northwest News Network, contributed to this report.