VA benefits limited for ejected veterans

It's unknown how many are denied care

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photoJarrid Starks shows a collection of drugs prescribed before he left military service, in Salem, Oregon, August 3, 2012. He has recently run out of pills. (Steve Ringman/Seattle Times/MCT)

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SEATTLE -- A few weeks after Jarrid Starks ended his Army service in May, he went to an office in Albany, Ore., to enroll for veterans health care benefits.

Starks brought medical records that detailed post-traumatic stress disorder, a twisted vertebra and a possible brain injury from concussions. Other records documented his tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, where his bravery fighting the Taliban was recognized with a Bronze Star for Valor.

None of that was enough to qualify him for health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

That's because Starks left the military this year with an other-than-honorable discharge -- his final year of service scarred by pot smoking and taking absences without leave (AWOL).

He was told to fill out a form, then wait -- possibly a year or more -- while officials review his military record to determine whether he is eligible for health care.

"I was absolutely livid," Starks, 26, recalls. "This just isn't right."

Starks is among the more than 20,000 men and women who exited the Army and Marines during the past four years with other-than-honorable discharges that hamstring their access to VA health care and may strip them of disability benefits.

Some were booted out of the military before they deployed.

Others served in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, then struggled upon their return with drug abuse, unauthorized leaves and other misconduct that placed them among the most troubled members of the generation of veterans who fought in the long wars launched after 9/11.

Starks ended his military career this spring with a weeklong stay at Madigan Army Medical Center under psychiatric care. Then, he was escorted to the front gate of Joint Base Lewis-McChord carrying a brown paper bag packed with a 90-day supply for six prescription drugs that included antipsychotics, antidepressants, pain pills and beta-blockers.

As he left the Army to re-enter the civilian world, Starks opted to wear a cap with a peculiar patch: "Warning, This Vet Is Medicated For Your Protection."

Amid a surge in suicides among recent veterans, politicians have increased VA budgets by billions of dollars to help expand and improve the treatment of PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and other conditions. They talk about forging a "seamless transition" from military medical care to the VA.

But federal law draws a sharp dividing line between honorably discharged veterans, who are offered access to veterans health care and disability compensation, and those whose misdeeds may put those benefits at risk.

Veterans who fall below the threshold of an honorable discharge must submit to a VA review of whether they engaged in "willful and persistent misconduct," and if so, whether that makes them ineligible for health care or disability benefits.

In response to a Seattle Times request for the number of veterans ruled ineligible for benefits, VA officials said the department has no way to track how many of these reviews are conducted, how long they take or their outcomes.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., says that she is concerned about any veterans who find themselves "outside of the VA looking in" and that the appeals process needs to be "vastly improved."

But Murray, chairwoman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, does not favor new legislation and says these veterans should continue to be evaluated case-by-case.

But the process apparently is not well understood.

Some veterans with other-than-honorable discharges said they were never informed of the review process when they initially showed up at VA hospitals.

"They told me I wasn't a veteran, and should leave," recalls Clayton Lawson, an Iraq veteran with an other-than-honorable discharge who sought health care at American Lake, a VA hospital south of Tacoma, after leaving the Army in 2010.

Other veterans say they were discharged from military service with no information about the review process. One Marine veteran said she was specifically told by a claims adviser and Marine Corps superiors that she would never receive any VA health care because of her other-than-honorable discharge.

The veteran, who requested anonymity, says she had gone AWOL after being raped, and had hoped to access a VA sexual-trauma program and hospital services. This year, she was surprised to learn she might still be eligible for VA care and submitted an application that is now under review.

"I am just grateful that the possibility of help exists, contrary to the misleading advice of my superiors," the veteran said.

For most of his military career, Starks appeared to be an Army success story.

After his initial tour of duty in Iraq, Starks was promoted up the ranks to serve as a staff sergeant in the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, deployed to Afghanistan in 2009.

Many of his nightmares stem from a January 2010 foot patrol.

At the end of the patrol, a Stryker vehicle that came to pick up Starks and his soldiers was destroyed by a bomb, killing one of his friends. The villagers who had set the bomb fled on motorbikes. Starks ended up killing one of them along with an 8-year-old boy seated on the bike.

"For most of that deployment, I did not see myself returning," Starks said.

He did return. But his father, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Salem, Ore., noticed a huge change.

"He was really distant. He didn't laugh much," recalls Lonnie Starks. "He got really nervous. Absolutely no crowds."

A year ago, his PTSD was deemed so severe that his medical records indicated he was unable "to carry and fire" a weapon. These records also noted evidence of a mild traumatic brain injury, and all this set the stage for a medical retirement.

But the heavily medicated Starks, living off the Lewis-McChord post, started not showing up for duty and eventually went AWOL for more than a month.

Finally in April, he came to the base for another medical examination he hoped would get his retirement back on track. But his AWOLs and repeated positive tests for marijuana resulted in his being jailed for several weeks.

Depressed and suicidal after his release, he was admitted to Madigan for a week of treatment, then dismissed from the Army.

According to documents reviewed by The Seattle Times, Starks' brigade commander recommended on March 28 he receive a general discharge that would have allowed him access to the VA "in the hopes he will avail himself of benefits and turn his life around."

But that recommendation wasn't followed, and he received the other-than-honorable discharge.

Since leaving the Army, Starks has been living with his father in Salem, and plans to enter community college in the fall to study psychology.

He took his six medications until he ran out of pills.

In early August, he was surprised to receive a letter from Gen. Eric Shinseki, the VA's secretary. It welcomed him home, and singled him out as a combat veteran eligible for five years of free VA health care.

"On behalf of the men and women of the VA, and a grateful Nation, thank you for your service," Shinseki wrote.

The letter prompted him to call a county representative assisting with his VA claim.

"I was told this was nothing more than a mass mailing," Starks said. "And I should disregard the letter."