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Veterans Day Success Story: South Texas Law Veterans Clinic Helps Veterans Appeal, Correct Discharge Status

Home Law School News Veterans Day Success Story: South Texas Law Veterans Clinic Helps Veterans Appeal, Correct Discharge Status

Veterans Day, an annual holiday to celebrate the military service of living former soldiers, may evoke mixed emotions for veterans discharged from service with an incorrect or inappropriate status. The Veterans Clinic at South Texas College of Law Houston is helping veterans remedy their discharge situation.

“This is where we shine,” said Diana Carlson, staff attorney at the Veterans Clinic, a part of the Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics at STCL Houston. “We mainly focus on discharge upgrade cases.”

When veterans receive anything other than an honorable discharge — which can occur for a variety of reasons — they are prevented from receiving benefits they would normally have earned through their military service.

Many veterans have received a discharge from military service that is other than honorable because they suffered from an undiagnosed mental health condition. Post-traumatic stress syndrome, bi-polar illness, schizophrenia, and other mental health issues can have symptoms that lead to behaviors such as self-medication, violence, and acting out in ways seen as misconduct.

Veterans can appeal their discharge status, but it is complicated and time-consuming. Carlson explained that legal assistance is critical for most discharge upgrade cases. Each branch of the military has its own regulations. Hours and hours of research are required, and complex legal briefs must be filed. In addition, hearings before a panel at the various discharge review boards are often necessary. Even then, the chance of successfully upgrading a discharge is less than 20%.

Veteran-centered organizations like Combined Arms and Disabled American Veterans (national nonprofits), the Texas Veterans Commission, and outreach teams at the Veterans Administration Hospital assist veterans with access to their benefits. However, Carlson said, very few attorneys or groups help with discharge upgrades. “The process is complex and can take years,” she said.

The law school’s Veterans Clinic is helping fill this gap. In addition to meeting with veterans and filing discharge upgrade applications on their behalf, clinic personnel make presentations and offer continuing legal education to help educate the whole community about the process.

Although anyone can represent a veteran before a discharge review board, briefs require careful research, are legal in nature, and most often are argumentative. Being an attorney or having legal training is beneficial. The Veterans Clinic staff, and the law students who work under their supervision, assist veterans with their upgrade applications — and the positive results can be life-changing.

A Success Story for One Army Veteran

Mark (not his real name) joined the U.S. Army in 1988. During the first phase of the Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, he volunteered to serve on the front line. As a tank driver, he saw heavy combat and participated in many firefights.

After his noteworthy performance on the battlefield, Mark was finishing his enlistment stationed on an Army base. The daily sights and sounds of soldiers training for combat retraumatized him, and his undiagnosed PTSD led to a fight or flight response. Mark fled and was absent without leave (AWOL) for eight months. After realizing what he had done was not right, he turned himself in.

“Current procedures would have caught Mark’s PTSD well before he went AWOL,” Carlson said. Unfortunately, he was given a less than honorable discharge that led to a cascade of negative events in his life.

“He battled homelessness, drug addiction, and turned to prostitution to support his habit for more than 20 years. In 2019 Mark sobered up, and found us,” Carlson said. “The story he told us about his service and his life after separation was heart wrenching. It was hard not to cry with him. He is a gentle person and was feeling very ashamed of the way he had been living.”

Carlson’s student team researched Mark’s case, and in June 2020, Carlson filed papers on his behalf. The average time to get a ruling is about two years, so during this time, Carlson battled the VA regarding his service-connected disability claim for PTSD.

In June 2022, Carlson learned the clinic was successful in getting Mark’s discharge upgraded to “General (under honorable conditions).” “Additionally, Mark’s record now reflects the two medals he earned: The Kuwait Liberation Medal and the Southwest Asia Service Medal with three Bronze Stars,” Carlson said.

 A few months later, the clinic won his PTSD claim, with a status of 100% disabled. He is entitled to full disability benefits with back pay of $165,000 and a monthly stipend of almost $4,000.

Carlson noted that Mark, like most of her clients, was filled with gratitude – not just for the challenging work done on his behalf, but because he no longer felt dismissed and discarded.

“Any help we can give them is something we gladly do,” Carlson said. “These men and women have sacrificed their minds and their bodies for us. Whatever frustrations we encounter in the process as we try to set things straight is more than offset by the elation we feel when we get a positive outcome.”

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