NEW HAVEN, Conn.—A Vietnam veteran who received the Bronze Star and later was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder filed a federal lawsuit Thursday trying to get the Army to modify his other-than-honorable discharge so that his sacrifice will be recognized and he can get disability benefits.
John Shepherd, a 63-year-old New Haven resident, says he battled alcoholism and struggled to stay employed for 40 years, but was not diagnosed with PTSD until 2004.
"My other-than-honorable discharge has made me feel deeply ashamed for many years," Shepherd said in a statement. "I hope this lawsuit can finally change that."
An Army spokesman says the service does not comment on pending lawsuits.
In 1969, Shepherd served a combat tour in the Mekong Delta, participating in patrols and search-and-destroy missions. The Army awarded him with a Bronze Star after his unit came under intense fire and Shepherd rushed toward an enemy bunker, entered it and threw a grenade that killed several enemy soldiers, according to the lawsuit.
Shepherd developed symptoms of PTSD after blowing up the enemy bunker and later witnessing the gruesome deaths of several comrades, according to his lawsuit. Shepherd also witnessed the killing of his commanding officer, who was reaching down to pull Shepherd out of a ditch when he was shot multiple times.
Shepherd began to act strangely and at one point was found wandering around a base in a confused state. He eventually reached a breaking point and refused to go back out into the field, the lawsuit says.
He was charged with failure to obey an order and discharged.
"Mr. Shepherd's other-than-honorable discharge has barred him from numerous veterans' compensation benefits programs for which he is otherwise eligible, impaired his employment opportunities, grossly devalued his military service and imposed upon him a lifetime of stigma and shame," the lawsuit states.
At the time, medical authorities did not recognize PTSD as a psychological disorder and Shepherd's symptoms went untreated as a result.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Shepherd's mental state deteriorated further.
"He became more and more tortured by his Vietnam memories and he felt intense shame about his less-than-honorable discharge," the lawsuit states. "He had trouble holding down a job and began living in his truck."
Shepherd sought counseling in 2003 at the New Haven Veterans Center, leading to his PTSD diagnosis.
A Veterans Affairs therapist concluded his refusal to obey an order stemmed from his PTSD, describing him as shell-shocked.
The Army said Shepherd missed a deadline for filing such claims and cited earlier incidents of failing to report to duty. The lawsuit asks that a judge upgrade Shepherd's discharge status or overturn the Army's decision that his application came too late.
The lawsuit acknowledged Shepherd was convicted of being absent without leave before he was deployed to Vietnam but says he was still deemed an outstanding soldier. The discharge was based on an incident related to PTSD and the Army only did a cursory review of the merits of the claim without considering Shepherd's 40 years of suffering, said Rebecca Kraus, a Yale Law School student representing him.
"Mr. Shepherd gave not merely one year of his life to the military and the nation," the lawsuit states. "Psychologically, he has been left on the battlefield for over 40 years."
Other veterans suffering from PTSD are coming forward seeking discharge upgrades.
"During the Vietnam era, people did not understand when service members like John Shepherd developed PTSD," said Dr. Thomas Berger, executive director of Vietnam Veterans of America's Veterans Health Council. "Honoring our commitment to veterans means making sure that all those with PTSD get the recognition and benefits they deserve, including an appropriate discharge upgrade."
The Connecticut Bar Association and other groups announced this week they will train volunteer lawyers and other advocates to help veterans apply for discharge upgrades. The process is complicated and time-consuming for many veterans, the bar association said.
"Decorated Vietnam-era combat veterans who are still suffering from PTSD have asked us for help because they received less than honorable discharges for impulsive acts that were likely the symptom of a mental health issue that wasn't well understood at the time," said Margaret Middleton, executive director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.
Shepherd is represented by Kraus and Daniel Feith, law student interns, and supervising attorney Michael Wishnie of the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic, which helps veterans with discharge upgrades, benefits claims and Freedom of Information Act requests.
"Mr. Shepherd has suffered psychological wounds for over four decades and the Army should recognize his sacrifice," Kraus said.