I am today signing S. 1307, a bill which provides standards for discharge review and benefit eligibility for those persons whose discharge is upgraded by the Department of Defense under the Special Discharge Review Program and for certain other veterans.
While I believe several of the bill's provisions can be improved--and I will propose legislation next year to do so--S. 1307 properly recognizes the need for an equitable and compassionate attitude toward the many veterans who received less than honorable discharges.
One of my first official acts as President was the pardon of those persons who violated selective service laws during the era of the Vietnam war, a war which divided the American people. By this action, thousands of persons were relieved of possible prosecution for violations of the Military Selective Service Act.
In addition, I directed the Secretary of Defense to develop an administrative program to deal with those persons who received less than honorable discharges during the Vietnam war era. Under the Special Discharge Review Program developed by the Department of Defense, with the advice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 28,000 applicants have been reviewed to date, and 16,000 persons have had their discharges upgraded. The Review Program has freed many young persons from the social and employment hardships that resulted from their less than honorable discharges.
This Special Discharge Review Program gave Congress the opportunity, by passing S. 1307, to evaluate the treatment given to all veterans with less than honorable discharges, regardless of the era in which they served. Through S. 1307, the Congress has provided all veterans with less than honorable discharges the opportunity to apply for an upgraded status.
Nothing in this bill detracts from the impact of the Presidential pardon or the Special Discharge Review Program in helping to wipe the records of these veterans clean.
S. 1307 accomplishes many positive benefits for veterans:
--For the first time, all veterans, regardless of the time of their service, will have their applications for discharge upgrading and for benefit eligibility determined by uniform nationwide standards. Thus, pre-Vietnam era, post-Vietnam era, and Vietnam era veterans will all be judged by the same nationwide standards.
--Veterans with less than honorable discharges, as well as those upgraded under the Special Discharge Review Program, will automatically be eligible for VA health care benefits for their service incurred injuries.
--The bill provides an opportunity for veterans upgraded under the Special Discharge Review Program to receive veterans benefits.
My hope is that the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration will be forthcoming and compassionate in upgrading veterans and extending benefit eligibility to them. Each of these is a clear step forward in the Nation's treatment of many of those who served in the Armed Forces.
This act establishes procedures for granting relief from administrative discharges in the future. Nothing we are doing, however, should create an impression of weakness in the resolve of the Government to ensure that discipline is maintained in our Armed Forces.
While the Special Discharge Review Program would have automatically provided benefit eligibility to those whose discharges have been upgraded, without the cumbersome procedures provided in S. 1307, I am pleased that Congress has deleted the amendment by Congressman Beard to the Department of Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill. That amendment would have totally denied veterans benefits to those whose status was upgraded under the Special Discharge Review Program.
Despite the benefits of the act, there are some provisions of S. 1307 which are troubling and which I will attempt to alleviate by submitting legislation next year.
While the primary purpose of the Special Discharge Review Program was to eliminate the stigma attached to persons with less than honorable discharges, another tangential result was to provide VA benefit eligibility to those upgraded under the program. Under S. 1307, however, those upgraded under the program will be required to have their benefit eligibility reevaluated by the Discharge Review Board, whether or not they have sought or plan to seek VA benefits.
In addition, I am also concerned that the bill completely bars benefit eligibility to those upgraded under the program whose records indicate they were absent without official leave for more than 180 consecutive days. This adverse impact of this provision is tempered by the fact that the upgraded status of such veterans would not be affected by this provision, the VA Administrator would be permitted to waive the bar if there were mitigating circumstances for the veteran's absence from service, and Defense Department records indicate that there are very few upgraded veterans actually in this category.
But the fact that this 180-day bar applies only to those whose upgrade discharges resulted from the Special Discharge Review Program raises serious equal protection problems. The .Justice Department believes this denial of equal treatment to certain upgraded veterans is probably unconstitutional. I am asking the Attorney General's advice on the way in which this provision should be administered in light of the Justice Department's opinion.
On balance, I believe this bill will help veterans, because it expands the number of veterans who are eligible for benefits, while preserving the opportunity for those whose status has been upgraded under the Special Discharge Review Program to qualify for benefits.