NJ wants to help veterans with ‘other than honorable’ discharges
Thousands of military veterans who have settled in New Jersey are classified as having received "other than honorable" discharges, many because of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma, or the outmoded "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy.
For that population, the very same benefits traditionally afforded to those who have been honorably discharged are hard to come by.
That's the focus of a new report, "A National Veterans Crisis: A New Jersey Solution," released Tuesday by the New Jersey Reentry Corporation.
The report is co-signed by at least a dozen New Jersey legislators and features testimony from combat veterans detailing their service, the nature of their discharges, and their subsequent struggles.
In making recommendations, NJRC is drawing on policies enacted within the last five years in California, Connecticut, and New York.
"The goal is to do a specific carve-out for Medicaid, for Blue Cross Blue Shield, to address the unique combat trauma needs of veterans, both in terms of psych and addiction treatment," former Gov. Jim McGreevey, NJRC chairman, said on a Zoom press conference that brought together numerous stakeholders.
Will Sheehan, former U.S. Navy, SEAL Intelligence and chairman of the NJRC Veterans Task Force, said just as members of the military learn during their training and active duty, "speed matters" when it comes to this.
Treatment for veterans with OTH discharges is desperately needed, he said, by any means necessary and no matter where or when a soldier's particular issue arises.
"If it's at the VA, and they can't do it and we can short-circuit that, then good on the state and good on us. The only thing that matters is getting the folks these benefits that they earned," Sheehan said.
22 suicides a day
Other speakers including state Sens. Joseph Cryan and Joseph Vitale, former state Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal, and New Jersey Veterans Network president Michael Boll discussed the wide range of physical and mental challenges that contribute to the oft-cited statistic of 22 suicides of U.S. veterans every day.
With a third of the soldiers returning from the nation's most recent deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan reporting a mental health issue, Dr. Ramon Solhkhah, chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, suggested the network of Americans affected by inaccessible veterans' benefits is expansive.
"It's also important to remember that these mental health issues impact not only the veteran, but impact their partners, their spouses, their children, so that there are significant issues that impact across the entire family," Solhkhah said.
That is why, according to Boll, so many lawmakers and veterans alike have put their names behind what NJRC is recommending.
"If this is done the right way, people that have served our country will get the fair treatment that they necessarily need to survive, and this 22 number can come down just by programs like this," he said.