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Veterans who received other-than-honorable discharges may be eligible for benefits

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some other news now. The Department of Veterans Affairs is giving benefits to thousands of vets who had been considered ineligible, and they include veterans who were kicked out of the service for homosexuality. Here's NPR's Quil Lawrence.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Troops get an other than honorable discharge for infractions that don't rise to the level of court martial. But the consequence is real. No military benefits or health care. The VA now recognizes that many of these vets have untreated PTSD or survived sexual assault by fellow troops and maybe started self-medicating with drugs. Press Secretary Terrence Hayes says those vets can get benefits.

TERRENCE HAYES: There are veterans out there who believe that they can't come to VA. But the truth is that many of them who are not discharged honorably can still get that care and benefits from VA.

LAWRENCE: VA already had the authority to declare a veteran service honorable for VA purposes. This new rule change solidifies that. And Hayes says vets should come in from the cold, even if they've been previously denied.

HAYES: Please, stop what you're doing. Give us a call so we can have that conversation and get you the benefits that you've earned.

LAWRENCE: Most significantly, the new rule formally eliminates a ban for, quote, "homosexual acts," and it creates exceptions for troops to show a compelling circumstance to explain other infractions. But it falls far short of what advocates wanted, says Renee Burbank with the National Veterans Legal Services Program.

RENEE BURBANK: They did very little except remove a bar related to homosexual acts, which they have not been really applying for years anyway. But fundamentally, the process is the same.

LAWRENCE: She points to data showing racial bias in military discharges that this rule change does nothing to fix. Burbank says vets with other than honorable discharges more often deal with homelessness and untreated mental health issues. The burden remains on them to go through a complicated VA application. Her group and others have petitioned the VA for years to make that easier.

BURBANK: But in the end, after 3 1/2 years of considering all those comments, VA basically did very little.

LAWRENCE: That could be because the Pentagon was also weighing in. DOD officials wrote the VA as recently as last month supporting the removal of the homosexual acts ban but pushing to limit any other changes.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON HOPKINS' "LOST IN THOUGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.