The Air Force said Thursday it will review the cases of former airmen who claim the service discriminated against them due to a mental health condition, or being victimized by a sexual assault or harassment, by ousting them with an other-than-honorable discharge.
Those discharges will get a fresh look as part of a proposed settlement in Johnson v. Kendall, a class-action lawsuit filed against the Air Force in federal district court in Connecticut in 2021 to challenge the service’s separation practices.
“I am glad the Air Force is committed to taking less-than-honorably discharged veterans’ mental health and trauma seriously,” plaintiff Martin Johnson said in a statement released by the service.
Stars and Stripes reported in 2021 that Johnson was discharged in 2009 after failing to obey multiple military regulations, like mowing his lawn according to base housing guidelines, following a deployment to Iraq and medical treatment for depression.
He was later diagnosed with major depressive disorder, social anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, the publication reported. An attempt to appeal his discharge was denied.
Johnson and a second, anonymous plaintiff lodged the complaint on behalf of thousands of other veterans with similar disabilities and situations, according to the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School, which worked on the case alongside New York law firm Jenner & Block.
The plaintiffs contend that other-than-honorable discharges unfairly punish veterans for the ways in which mental health diagnoses and sexual trauma affected their behavior while in uniform.
Other-than-honorable discharges bar veterans from receiving benefits like Department of Veteran Affairs-run medical care, home loans and tuition assistance, and can hurt their chances of finding a civilian job.
The settlement gives troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan a path to claim the full slate of post-service government benefits after being shut out of the VA system.
Upgrading those discharges to “honorable” could ease veterans’ medical and financial burdens and open new doors in their civilian lives.
“The Department of the Air Force’s actions to resolve this case underscore our continued commitment to provide former airmen and guardians fairness, due process, equity and justice in all cases that are submitted to our review boards,” Alex Wagner, the civilian official in charge of Air Force manpower, said in the release.
The settlement applies to members of the active duty Air Force and Space Force, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve who were discharged after Oct. 7, 2001, with separations classified as “under honorable conditions (general)” or “under other-than-honorable conditions.”
Veterans who unsuccessfully appealed their discharge on or after Sept. 13, 2015, will get an automatic review, according to the settlement’s website. Those who tried to get their discharge upgraded between Sept. 13, 2006, and Sept. 12, 2015, can apply for reconsideration.
Veterans who cannot travel to Washington to appeal their case in person will be allowed to attend via videoconference, and have the right to request accommodations for disabilities.
“Discharge upgrades are not guaranteed, and applications will be decided on a case-by-case basis,” the Air Force said.
The settlement does not apply to those who received bad conduct or dishonorable discharges, uncharacterized discharges or dismissals.
Those appealing their discharge must show a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or other mental health condition, or evidence of sexual assault or harassment, during their military service.
The settlement would create a one-year pilot program that allows those who fail to submit enough evidence of a particular condition or trauma the opportunity to return with more proof.
It also prompts the Air Force Discharge Review Board to provide a hotline that applicants can call with questions. And the settlement would spur the board to train staff on recognizing the behavioral effects of mental health conditions and how to avoid bias against people with disabilities and sexual trauma.
The Army and Navy have already agreed to reconsider other-than-honorable discharges under settlements in similar federal cases. A hearing to approve the settlement in Johnson v. Kendall is scheduled for Dec. 4.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.