Research Review: Underserved, How the VA Wrongfully Excludes Veterans with Bad Paper

As May is Mental Health Awareness month, IAVA would like to highlight the obstacles facing veterans seeking mental healthcare. In this report, researchers detail the long-term impacts of a “bad paper” discharge, an issue of particular concern for veterans facing mental health challenges.


A “bad paper” discharge means that a service member did not receive an honorable discharge upon exiting the military. Instead, they may have received an other than honorable, or general discharge. These veterans are often excluded from VA services and healthcare, and may be excluded from access to community resources because many community programs follow the eligibility requirements set by the VA. The report is a product of Swords to Plowshares, National Veterans Legal Services and the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School.

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Researchers performed this study by analyzing online data from Character of Discharge Determinations of the Boards of Veterans’ Appeals decisions from 1992 onward. They found that an estimated 125,000 post-9/11 veterans have been discharged with “bad paper.”

Researchers found that the impact of discharge status varied by branch and era of service. Marines were almost 10 times more likely to be excluded from VA services than their counterparts in the Air Force. Veterans of the most recent conflicts were excluded from VA services two to four times as much as veterans of other eras.

Veterans who received bad paper discharges are often more at risk, and in need of VA support after their service. They are more likely to have mental health conditions, more likely to be homeless and twice as likely to commit suicide compared to veterans with honorable discharges. However, they are less able to access the care they need for a successful transition to civilian life. Three out of four veterans with bad paper discharges who served in combat and had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder were denied eligibility for VA services by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals.


IAVA’s Policy Agenda emphasizes the importance of increasing access to quality mental healthcare for every service member and veteran. Even now, some veterans are discharged because of disciplinary problems that can be attributed to mental health injuries.

IAVA suggests three solutions to address this issue, while the researchers suggest several additional solutions in their report. IAVA suggests that:

1) DoD should complete a comprehensive audit of previous personality disorder (Chapter 5–13) discharges to certify that service members suffering from service-connected psychological or neurological injuries were not improperly discharged.

2) DoD must review and alter DoD procedures to prevent discharges for disciplinary or administrative issues that are the result of a mental health injury.

3) Vet Center utilization and patient outcomes must be evaluated to determine national gaps in care and fill those gaps in communities across the nation, particularly for those veterans already in need of care who cannot access it at the VA due to their discharge status.

For more information on policy recommendations to improve mental healthcare among veterans, see IAVA’s Policy Agenda. For more information on the long-term impacts of bad paper discharges, see the Underserved report.

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