New Haven – Conley Monk was given a choice as a 21-year-old Marine lance corporal struggling with drugs and nightmares after combat in Vietnam: Accept a less-than-honorable discharge or face an indefinite stay in a base brig on Okinawa. He took the ticket home.
Monk, now 65, is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed Monday by a Yale University law clinic on behalf of Vietnam veterans denied medical care and other benefits as a result of discharges accepted in the days before the military recognized post-traumatic stress as a medical disorder.
The Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale is seeking class-action status for litigation that asks the U.S. District Court to order the Pentagon to use “consistent and medically appropriate standards” in evaluating claims of PTSD by Vietnam veterans appealing their discharge status.
“They were wounded by war, and they were wounded by the discharge process,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who joined the students, veterans and faculty at a press conference at Yale announcing the lawsuit.
Blumenthal, a member of the committees on Veterans’ Affairs and Armed Services, said he will try to prevail on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, to administratively order the changes sought by the lawsuit.
“What I’m going to emphasize to him is the need to correct an injustice,” Blumenthal said. A whole class of veterans is being denied fair treatment, he said, because they suffered trauma not recognized as a medical syndrome until 1980.
An irony is that the Army and Marines have made great strides in identifying and treating their current service members who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, Blumenthal said. Thirty percent to 50 percent of all combat veterans of those two wars suffer from varying degrees of post-traumatic stress.
Lt. Col. Damien F. Pickart, a Pentagon spokesman, had no comment on the litigation.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Monk, four other veterans and three groups: the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Vietnam Veterans of America Connecticut State Council and the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress, a group that Monk founded with his brother, Garry.
All five veterans named as plaintiffs would have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress under current standards and have been treated or granted medical discharges, the suit says.
The suit sketches out five similar military records. All five enlisted, three in the Marines, two in the Army. All five were decorated for actions in combat and eventually developed behavioral problems after completing their combat tours.
Kevin Marret saw Marines blown up when a satchel charge exploded. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 1994, a diagnosis affirmed in 1997 and 2012. Four times, he was denied upgraded discharge status.
George Siders, a Marine who took part in 26 major actions and survived multiple helicopter crashes, convinced a review board that it should upgrade his discharge status in 2003, but the finding was overruled by the assistant secretary of the Navy. His appeal was denied again in 2012.
He has been treated for PTSD since 2004.
James Cottam, an Army sergeant, was diagnosed with PTSD in 1982 and 1985 by the Veterans Administration. He was denied an upgraded discharge in 2009 and has exhausted his administrative appeals.
James Davis’ duties in the Army included having to sort, identify and bag bodies and body parts brought to his firebase by helicopter. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 2011 by the VA. In rejecting his petition for an upgrade, the Pentagon said he hadn’t been diagnosed prior to his discharge.
The only plaintiff at the press conference, which was held in a crowded conference room at Yale, was Monk.
His problems arose after his unit was rotated from Vietnam to Okinawa. Experiencing flashbacks and night sweats, he began taking morphine. The suit says he had two altercations, one with a commanding officer who approached him at night, grabbed him and mistakenly accused him of stealing.
He tried and failed three times during the 1970s to upgrade his discharge status. In December 2011, a Yale University psychiatrist diagnosed him with PTSD attributable to his military service.
Last year, he filed a new application for an upgrade, but has heard nothing.
Monk said he kicked his drug addiction after his return to New Haven, then became a drug counselor. He has not worked since suffering a stroke 10 years ago. He would like to seek treatment for other maladies at a V.A. Hospital.
“I wake up every night in a cold sweat,” he said.
He takes two T-shirts to bed.