In 1968, John Shepherd volunteered for the United States Army. After basic and advanced individual training at Fort Gordon, Ga., in early 1969, he was deployed to Vietnam, assigned to the 9th Infantry Division, and stationed at Fire Support Base Dirk in the Mekong Delta. While there, his unit was subjected to frequent rocket and mortar attacks that killed many of his fellow soldiers.
Mr. Shepherd was sent on search and destroy missions almost daily. On one of them, he and his patrol were inserted by helicopter into a landing zone under intense enemy fire. He located the source of the fire, a bunker, charged it and threw a grenade, killing all the enemy soldiers but one, who was captured. For his courage and heroism under hostile fire, Mr. Shepherd was awarded the Bronze Star with Valor Device.
Not long after that incident, Mr. Shepherd’s commanding officer, while reaching to help Mr. Shepherd climb out of a ditch, was shot multiple times. During the same time period, he witnessed the death of several of his comrades from enemy fire. Eventually those experiences overwhelmed him, and he refused an order to return to the field. Consequently a special court-martial convicted Mr. Shepherd in April, 1969 of disobeying a lawful order, and he was sentenced to six months confinement at hard labor and forfeiture of six months pay. His sentence of confinement was suspended, and in August 1969 he was administratively discharged under other-than-honorable conditions.
After his discharge, Mr. Shepherd had a difficult life. Memories of his service in Vietnam haunted him. He abused alcohol, had problems controlling his anger and difficulty holding a job. Finally, in April of 2003 he sought counseling at the New Haven Veterans Center. The counselor told him his symptoms were consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2004, the Veterans Administration determined that he was fully disabled from service-connected PTSD and would qualify for VA medical care for the condition. However, despite that determination, he cannot receive VA benefits because of his other-than-honorable discharge.
Mr. Shepherd has pursued several administrative procedures to have his discharge upgraded. His claim is that his undiagnosed service-connected PTSD contributed to the misconduct that led to his discharge, a reasonable claim given that PTSD was not recognized as a medical condition until the early 1980s. His requests, including the most recent one to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records, were denied.
In December 2011, students at Yale Law School’s Veterans Services Legal Clinic filed a federal lawsuit seeking an upgrade of Mr. Shepherd’s discharge in order to make him eligible for VA benefits. In December 2012, the Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) joined the suit on behalf of approximately 80,000 Vietnam veterans with PTSD who were discharged under other-than-honorable conditions and are therefore ineligible for VA benefits for PTSD treatment. By way of remedy in the lawsuit, the VVA has requested the court to require the government to use medically appropriate standards when considering the effects of PTSD in determining whether to upgrade a discharge and to cease discriminating on the basis of disability against Vietnam veterans with service-connected PTSD.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, those veterans were compelled by the military draft to serve in a controversial and bitter war. By the late 1960s, the goal of most troops in Vietnam was simply to survive the 365-day tour of duty. In the words of one veteran, search and destroy missions became search and avoid missions. Nevertheless, like John Shepherd, most did their duty until PTSD made it psychologically impossible for them to do so.
The work of the Yale Veterans Service Legal Clinic and the VVA in bringing their lawsuit is commendable. But although a favorable ruling for John Shepherd will give him access to VA medical treatment, a grant of the requested relief for the class will still require its members to navigate the administrative labyrinth of the VA. It’s time for Congress to provide a legislative remedy by authorizing treatment for PTSD for all who served in Vietnam, regardless of their discharge status. Those veterans have suffered the haunting memories of combat and the resulting disabilities for 40 years or more. They were boys when they went to Vietnam; the average age of a draftee then was 19. They’re approaching old age now. Even if they deserved their other-than-honorable discharges then, they deserve treatment now.
As Bobby Kennedy said in 1968, ". . . let us think of the young men we have sent there: not just the killed, but those who have to kill; not just the maimed, but also those who must look upon the results of what they do."•