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Group works to reclassify discharged vets with PTSD

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"What we need is a mailing for all the veterans in this area, and we haven't been able to get that," says Korean War veteran Jack Nordgaard, left, of Red Wing. He and Jerry Seivert, also of Red Wing and a Veterans for Peace member, are trying to change the less-than-honorable discharge status of some veterans whose conduct might have been precipitated by post traumatic stress disorder.

Jack Nordgaard is looking for a few good men — and women — who may have made a mistake.

Nordgaard, a member of the Veterans for Peace chapter in Red Wing, said he and some fellow veterans are looking for individuals who received less-than-honorable discharges for conduct that might be related to post-traumatic stress disorder or a traumatic brain injury.

"A lot of these people, if they tried to get help from a doctor or help from a psychologist, they couldn't because they did not have VA benefits," Nordgaard said.

The people Nordgaard would like to find are Vietnam-era veterans who, for example, received a less-than-honorable discharge after getting into some trouble that might have been caused by combat trauma.

"What would happen is if they can prove a connection between PTSD and what they did, they can change their discharge status," Nordgaard said. "Then they would be able to get VA health benefits."

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Nordgaard is not alone in thinking veterans with combat trauma are falling through the cracks. On March 3, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz introduced the Fairness for Veterans Act. The bill essentially does many of the same things Nordgaard is trying to do with his group in Red Wing.

"We hear a lot of those stories," said Walz, who added that language similar to his bill was part of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, but was taken out before passage of that bill in the Senate. "We're not condoning the behavior (that earned a less-than-honorable discharge), but saying if what they did was a result of PTSD or a traumatic brain injury, it means we need to help them."

Walz's bill, which was co-introduced by Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, would place the benefit of the doubt with the veteran instead of the VA in cases where combat trauma can be linked to behavior that led to discharge.

"You want these people in the mental health system not the criminal justice system," Walz said. Veteran who meet the burden of proof would then be eligible other benefits in addition to VA health benefits. "For them, it's about the honor and wanting to get the help on the medical side."

Walz said the problem is potentially very widespread. Since 2009, at least 22,000 veterans have been discharged who have suffered PTSD or a TBI for misconduct. While not all of these incidents of misconduct can be linked to combat trauma, the potential there is big.

"If one veteran has been wronged on this, we've failed," Walz said.

The bill working its way through Washington now will only cover service members over the last 15 years. For Walz, that's not far enough, but he said budget concerns would certainly torpedo extending coverage any further for now.

That won't stop Nordgaard from trying to help those Vietnam-era veterans who may have been suffering for years.

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"We lived in Chicago for 30 years, and I spent 10 years working with an alcoholism program there," he said. There, he met many veterans who had suffered combat trauma then been discharged for misconduct. "We'd take them to the VA hospitals, and they would not be treated."

Among Vietnam-era veterans, Nordgaard said research shows there were 80,000 to 90,000 potential veterans nationally who would meet the criteria of who he is looking to help. That would translate to roughly 20 in Goodhue County.

The trouble is finding them.

"We're starting to go around to the Legion posts or VFW posts, or to Beyond the Yellow Ribbon," he said, referring to the organization that links service men and women with community support. "If we can help just five people in this county, maybe we can talk to people in other counties."

If you know a veteran in Goodhue County who received a less-than-honorable discharge due to misconduct tied to post-traumatic stress or a traumatic brain injury, contact Veterans for Peace Chapter 115, P.O. Box 244, Red Wing, MN 55066.

Related Topics: TIM WALZ
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