Saturday night, President Trump publicly staked out Veterans Day as a possible date for his military parade. According to Trump, the parade would run up and down Pennsylvania Ave., include a lot of flyovers, and be great for the spirit of the country.
For a long time, I have hoped that thousands of veterans would march in Washington, D.C. However, none of these veterans currently serve in our military. Im thinking of the hundreds of thousands of veterans who received less-than-fully-honorable discharges, including the more than 300,000 who have served after 2001 and the more than 560,000 that received them during Vietnam.
Only a fraction of these discharges were actually dishonorable, which is the equivalent of a federal felony conviction. As young adults serving in uniform, most of these veterans committed misdemeanors or less, and they now carry a potentially lifelong sentence that deprives them of VA reintegration benefits and a full measure of honor.
For more than three years, I worked closely with tens of veterans most of them New Yorkers who turned to Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security Boards of Review for discharge upgrades or record corrections. Most of the veterans with whom I worked were placed with trained attorneys who helped them navigate the upgrade and correction process. Hundreds more were turned away because of lack of capacity.
Relatively few veterans apply to these boards and, without help, even fewer get an upgrade. I saw the process up close, and, over time, I realized that many of these veterans were being deprived of due process by a broken military record correction system and the uninterested political officials.
So, I hope that, in the shadow of Trumps parade, thousands of these veterans hold what I would call a March for Honor. Under Trumps flyovers, I hope these veterans convene on the National Mall to celebrate the best parts of their service and to advocate for immediate reforms to the DOD and DHSs antiquated and derelict discharge upgrade system.
The Boards of Review have the legal authority to upgrade a discharge or to correct a record, but, since the late 1970s and early 1980s, these boards have fallen into a state of dysfunction, which ill-serves even the most deserving applicant.
For many reasons, the boards validly deny thousands of upgrades, but they also provide catastrophically incomplete and insufficient resources and instructions for veterans who seek to apply. Advocates have previously identified some of these deficiencies including a dilapidated and incomplete online reading room of past decisions that shields the boards work from the scrutiny of the public and lawmakers.
Furthermore, before some boards, veterans lack an unabridged right to an in-person or video hearing and the unhindered ability to present the oral testimony of expert witnesses, which hurts their chances at an upgrade.
As a result of these grave flaws and others, deserving veterans do not get upgrades. And veterans dont submit the kind of robust applications that could be reviewed favorably by a federal judge who could overturn an improper military decision.
In America, remedial access to rights is often accompanied by legal action and nonviolent, political demonstrations. Recent, boutique class action litigation by a handful of veteran plaintiffs who were willing to go public with their less-than-fully-honorable discharges has largely benefited the fraction of upgrade cases that involve posttraumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, or military sexual trauma.
But it is still rare to find robust advocacy for the able-bodied teenagers who made common, youthful mistakes for example, those vets who got kicked out of the military and stripped of benefits for a single instance of off-duty marijuana use that was unrelated to trauma.
Veterans with less-than-fully-honorable discharges are isolated, silent and rarely championed, and they have a risk of suicide that is higher than that of many of their peers. But, Congress cant seem to focus their attention on this injustice, and no commander in chief since President Jimmy Carter will confront it outright.
Consequently, these veterans die by the thousands in ignominy that, in many cases, they should have been absolved of long ago.
If Trumps march would be great for the spirit of the country, then a concurrent March for Honor could be great for the political fortune of veterans who deserve a fair, functional path to justice and renewal.
Cuthbert, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, formerly managed the military discharge upgrade clinic at the Veteran Advocacy Project of the Urban Justice Center.