Veterans struggle to upgrade less than honorable discharges

For former military veterans, there is one rule to having “bad papers:” Keep it silent.

Rev. L. Jerome Fowler, of Prince George’s County, knows the notion well. In 1996, he and a group of colleagues started researching ways they could upgrade his great-great uncle’s military record - 110 years after he was dishonorably discharged from the Army.

Vincent Plummer was the Army’s first African-American chaplain. After his court martial in 1894, the incident was kept hidden until 2004, when his upgrade was formally granted.

Ten years year later, Plummer’s story still resonates with many veterans seeking to change their military status. The committee that fought so hard to help Fowler’s family, is now providing guidance for others in similar situations.

It was a consequence committee members  never anticipated, but have welcomed.

“I am so happy that more good can come from his story,” Fowler said.

Plummer was born into slavery in 1844 in Prince George’s County. After serving in the Navy, he decided to become a chaplain in the Army.

While on base in Kansas, colleagues accused Fowler of drinking and starting fights. The accusations lead to his permanent separation from the military.

The decision left Plummer unable to claim military benefits he was entitled to. 

“When I heard what happened, something didn’t sound right,” Fowler said. “From what I gathered, Vincent was a very disciplined man who never caused any trouble.”

Convincing the U.S. Army that Plummer deserved the upgrade wasn’t easy. It took years of research and a dedicated staff of 12 to get the case heard.

“But we persisted, we gone it done,” Fowler said. “Not many people in Vincent’s situation have that support.”

Fowler said one problem about the upgrade process is many veterans aren’t vocal about their situation, opting to keep the discharge to themselves.

“Many of these veterans are embarrassed, maybe ashamed,” he said. “It might be a different time, but his story is more relevant than ever.”

Growing numbers/silent voices

According to media reports, it’s estimated that  in the last decade, 100,000 people have been given an “other than honorable” discharge from the military.

That’s in addition to the estimated 500,000 veterans separated by the same charges during the Vietnam War.

Officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs could not provide a clear number of how many Maryland residents live with a less than honorable discharge, citing that the figure was small.

James Richardson, a longtime military and veteran lawyer, predicts that number will continue to rise, as the government looks for ways to create a smaller military and as long as Vietnam veterans grow older.

He saw a similar wave in the 1980s as Korean War veterans came in waves seeking to change their statuses.

“It could happen in the future, as soldiers start to come home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Richardson said.

Richardson finds that nearly all of his clients shy away from telling their story. He never reveals their identity when he takes on pro-bono work.

“It’s out of respect,” he said. “It’s hard enough to ask for help with this, it’s even harder to admit alleged wrongdoing publicly.”

A dishonorable discharge means a  loss of benefits like the GI Bill for school or a VA home loan. Veterans also can't get health care and disability compensation, even for the PTSD that may have caused a dishonorable discharge.

In an effort to help veterans,  last year Baltimore’s Veteran Affairs opened up a legal clinic in conjunction with Baltimore’s Homeless Persons Representation Project.

Michael Stone, who helps head up the initiative, said his goal is to connect veterans to  affordable legal help, including military upgrades.

“The process is hard enough,” he said. “Add the fact your are homeless and are in need of additional help. We are here to serve as that resource.”

Complex Process

Patrick Young, who heads Towson University’s Veteran Affairs department, said the main reasons veterans seek to get their status changed is to take advantage of the GI Bill and to seek medical treatment.

“When someone asks me about upgrades, I always tell them to get an attorney,” he said. “If the process takes years, there is more to it than filling out a form--you have to be ready to navigate and present your case.”

Young, a former Marine, said it’s important for the military to educate service personnel on what getting a less than honorable discharge means.

“Many times it’s not talked about,” he said. “Education is one way we can change that.”

Richardson said the chances of an upgrade aren’t that high. He estimates the success rate is between 8 and 10 percent.

In the military, there are basically two types of discharges, administrative and punitive.

Punitive discharges are issued as the result of a sentence of a court-martial. Administrative discharges are those which terminate a service member’s term of service before a period of enlistment is complete.

If a person wants to correct their record and the discharge was made within 15 years

of separation, they can file a petition with the military’s discharge review board.

If it’s been longer, as in the case of Plummer, a person can appeal to a military correction board to change their record.

Ret. Army Cpl. James Guyton said Plummer taught him a lot about the upgrade process.

As a former committee member, he’s now working on including Plummer’s story as part of a new initiative to build the Prince George’s County African American Museum.

“If it’s helping others, we have to make sure his memory isn’t forgotten,” he said. “There are others out there who deserve to be honored with respect.”

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