A Vietnam veteran needed help. The government gave him a “bad paper” discharge instead
BY EMMA DUMAIN AND TARA COPP
JULY 25, 2019
“What person in their right mind would serve the country honorably and then come back and go AWOL? I had to have been nuts.” Charles Smith
When Charles Smith came home after two years in Vietnam during one of the bloodiest periods of the conflict, he was a traumatized 21-year-old who needed help.
But all he could think about in 1969 was getting away from the military and “drinking myself to death.”
Smith — now 70 years old and living in Conway, S.C. — displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a condition that wasn’t formally recognized by the U.S. medical community until 1980. He dealt with his pain by going Absent Without Leave, or AWOL.
That action affected the rest of his life.
He received an “undesirable” discharge in 1971, which at the time was a subcategory of “less than honorable.” Smith’s mental state and his exposure to combat weren’t part of the evaluation.
That became a double injury, because the designation meant Smith would not be eligible to get medical or mental health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs, or any financial benefits like disability payments, housing loans and education.
He is among tens of thousands of veterans who have experienced that same type of military separation, even though they are often among the troops who need care the most. Veterans believe many of these discharges are undeserved and call them “bad paper.”
“It’s taking time. That’s more suffering mentally, physically and spiritually, really, because you still will continue to drink or use drugs or whatever you want to escape,” he continued. “And most folks get discouraged, because they’re taking ‘No’ for an answer.”
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