Despite ‘less than honorable’ discharge, veteran fights for benefits

Steve Norko

Steve Norko successfully applied for veterans' benefits despite an "other than honorable" discharge. (Tony Bacewicz/For C-HIT)

At 55, Stephen Norko says he was at “the lowest point’’ of his life. Homeless, unemployed, and feeling ill, the 17-year Navy veteran couldn’t get medical care at a Veterans Affairs hospital because he had an “other than honorable’’ discharge.

“They wanted nothing to do with me,’’ Norko said.

A VA health care worker, who met Norko at a homeless shelter, encouraged him to do what few veterans have done — fight the decision that denied him VA medical care. He became one of a handful of veterans nationwide to appeal a health eligibility decision in the last two years.

This year — with significant legal and political support — he won. Advocates for veterans say they hope the case will prompt other veterans with “other than honorable” discharges to seek VA benefits, which many assume are out-of-reach.

“It’s a big myth out there that an OTH is automatically ineligible,” said Michael Taub, who works with veterans in the Homeless Advocacy Project in Philadelphia and has been spreading the word that vets with dishonorable discharges may often be eligible for VA medical care.

“It’s a big myth out there that an [other than honorable discharge] is automatically ineligible” for VA benefits.
— Michael Taub, Homeless Advocacy Project in Philadelphia

Statistics show that appeals such as Norko’s are rare. Official figures from the Veterans Health Administration’s Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta show only six appeals were filed nationally through the central office in the last two years. Of the six, two were successful, three are pending and one was withdrawn by the veteran, according to the eligibility center. Norko’s appeal, which was not handled by the central office, is not included in those numbers.

In Norko’s case, which includes commendations and honorable discharges prior to re-enlistments, a failed drug test led to his OTH discharge in April 1992. He had other sporadic violations while in the Navy, but less than a year before he was discharged he received a letter of commendation and a Good Conduct Award.

Norko told his story last year to a VA health care outreach worker while staying at Spooner House, a Shelton, Conn., homeless shelter. The worker referred him to the nonprofit Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, which took his case and represented him for free.

Last summer, the center appealed the initial decision denying Norko’s benefits to the VBA regional office in Newington. The appeal cited Norko’s extensive Navy record and contended that his drug violation didn’t “rise to the level of dishonorable conduct or willful and persistent misconduct, ” according to the center’s brief.

In December 2011, the VBA notified the legal center that Norko’s appeal had been successful. For unknown reasons, his name didn’t appear in the VA computer system until March 2012, which meant he couldn’t receive medical care until then. During the gap, the staff of U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., got involved, contacting the VA on Norko’s behalf, so that he could get care.

Veterans’ advocates say there are countless other “Stephen Norkos” who should be getting VA medical care but either don’t bother to apply because they incorrectly assume their discharge status makes them ineligible, or don’t know that they can appeal VA rejections. Advocates say negotiating the VA system alone is extremely difficult.

“I’m not sure how we can reach these folks other than camp outside of an eligibility office,” said Margaret Middleton, executive director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there about how you’re eligible for VA services.”

In Connecticut last year, of 2,383 people who applied for VA health care, 59 percent were ruled eligible, 25 percent were deemed ineligible and 16 percent are pending, according to figures from the eligibility center. The most common reasons for rejections were exceeding income limits, serving less than 24 months of active duty, not having qualifying active duty or the nature of the discharge.

Taub, the Philadelphia advocate, said many veterans with OTH discharges never try to seek VA health care.

“I think they’ve been told somewhere along the line they are not eligible, whether when filing a claim or hearing from other vets,” he said. He pointed out that there are circumstances when a vet with an OTH discharge is automatically ineligible for VA medical care, such as being absent without leave for 180 consecutive days.

“But in most of the cases I’ve seen, there is flexibility,” said Taub, director of the Homeless Advocacy Project’s veterans’ program.

Patrick Bellon, executive director of the advocacy group Veterans for Common Sense, said he has concerns that the military is using OTH status inappropriately, in some cases, to punish veterans who break rules because of underlying mental health problems.

“The real problem is whether or not they deserve the ‘other than honorable’ discharge, or if it’s the result of extenuating circumstances,” he said. “How many are deserved, and how many are the result of an attempt to deny rightful benefits?”

Veterans are not automatically entitled to VA medical care. Determining eligibility is a complex process in which factors including length of service, income, disabilities, commendations and type of discharge are weighed, said Pamela Redmond, spokeswoman for the West Haven, Conn., Veterans Affairs medical center.

Middleton said Norko’s case highlights that the OTH discharge issue is “a place where lawyers getting involved are going to make a difference.” On a larger scale, she said, VA’s eligibility process needs to become “clearer, more transparent and quicker.”

Linda Schwartz, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs, said her department and several veterans’ organizations have service officers trained by the VA to represent veterans making claims to the VA. She agreed that many veterans need help navigating VA rules, citing her own experience after serving as a flight nurse in Vietnam.

“I can tell you, I have a doctorate from Yale, and I had a service officer person who handled my claim,” she said.

For his part, Norko, who now lives at Homes for the Brave in Bridgeport, a residence for homeless veterans, said he was grateful to all who helped him. A Bridgeport native, he said he couldn’t have made the appeal on his own, nor would he have thought to do so.

“It takes the right people, sometimes, to put you in the right direction,” said Norko, who at one point lived in his car after he lost a maintenance job in Norwalk. “Honestly, I thought I was done for.”

This story was reported under a partnership between the New Haven Register and the Connecticut Health Investigative Team.

 

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  • jubei

    I am dealing with the same as him recently separated from the Navy with almost 12 years in due to stress ect ect (suppose to be He men and make no mistakes and be perfect) got overly intoxicated in another country did something I normally would have never done and now I am separated with an OTH. My chief told me my Lcdr (captain) demoted me to put me in the HYT bracket so I could separate for HYT purposes and that is what I thought up until almost the end until I started putting it together and then I attempted to enlist a lawyer to get me an admin board but no one called me back from his office and found out he went home at 1:30 that evening when i needed him most he didn’t call me update me or anything i kept calling his office because the next day was 4th of July and the navy was trying to separate me on the 5th the lawyers attendant had to tell me in so many words to not call or come back to the office until I am called which never happened until this day. I finally got the lawyer to call me back to tell me that I gave him to short of a notice and that Rome wasn’t built in a day. I even wrote him a check for 2000 dollars to retain me in the navy come to find out when i was on my ship i waived my rights because my only legal council was my weapons officer who was like an O2 and i felt would have had prejudices over my case. My ship was a PC out of Bahrain and I was a combat systems ICman for almost 8 years never been to engineering and tried my best to adapt to engineering learning and qualifications but no one would “hook me up” cause i was never in the in crowd so i stayed outside not many in my department really cared for me except for maybe like 2 people who happened to be the same race I was. Because I was different I believe and no one wanted to extend a hand to help, were waiting for me to mess up to send me to the gallows in which is what happened 3 people(chain of command 1st class Lpo, Enc, 02 cheng) and none of them had 1 good thing to say about me, there was no counseling chits or record of corrections and nothing just that I made a mistake and they were going to crucify me for it and were waiting for this opportunity and i had finally given it to them. I am not the worst sailor and I am definitely am not the best but I tell you one thing I was one hell of an ICman and I cared about my gear and did my best to increase crew moral where ever possible by doing my job and providing television services, telephone where there was none import, internal communications announcing systems, I would do all of this without ever having to be asked because I cared about my crew and how others looked at there ICman no I was not an Engine man but I did what i could and helped where I could help, there is so much more to this story but hey who cares I can barely even hear out of my right ear from being on the PC’s and now I cannot even get any kind of medical care at the age of 32!!!!!!!! What kind of system are we living in to where we allow this to happen because of personal pride that we deny someone and judge them and leave them out in the street to die??? I paid FEDERAL TAXES AND STATES every year of my career and now you are telling me that I cannot get financial help from my government whether it be FEDERAL or STATE but they have no problem taking the taxes out of my check when i did have but now that i need help and assistance there is a problem I don’t understand……

  • Jesse Mcknight

    The military has forgotten that we don’t leave our wounded. I too did something stupid, I smoked crack while in a drinking state of mind, I was hooked immediately. I went to my command for help and pretty much they tired their back and wound up with an OTH. This was in 1989, I am just now emotionally able to address the issue. My suggestion is don’t search the why, address the discharge and your emotional well being.