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Local veteran part of class-action lawsuit
George Siders now and when he was in the Marine Corps (he's in the back right). - photo by Submitted photos

Newton County resident George Siders saw the horrors of the Vietnam War first hand for 13 months – he killed enemy soldiers and he saw his Marine friends die. He saw those horrors replayed in his dreams for years.

As a result of his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — which was not diagnosed in the U.S. until years later – Siders said he struggled to adjust to life on base in the U.S. and he twice left base without permission, eventually resulting in his arrest by the FBI.

He was given the option of taking "an other than honorable discharge" from the U.S. Marine Corps to avoid a court-martial conviction. He said he was told the discharge would be upgraded to "general under honorable conditions" after six months; it never was.

In later years, the Board for Correction of Naval Records denied Siders’ request for an upgrade, leaving him without access to Veterans Administration benefits he said he deserves and needs.

Siders is one of five named defendants from across the U.S. who are part of a national class-action lawsuit filed Monday against the secretaries of the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force. The lawsuit represents all Vietnam veterans who suffer from PTSD and, as a result of their actions due to their PTSD, did not receive honorable discharges from their military branches.

The lawsuit was filed Monday in federal court in Connecticut by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic, an academic program at Yale Law School, and seeks to have the five named veterans’ discharges upgraded to "honorable" or "general (under honorable conditions)" and to have a more consistent review process for other Vietnam veterans with discharge cases where PTSD played a role.

The other named plaintiffs are James Cottam (New York, Army), Kevin Marrett (Indiana, Marine Corps) James Davis (New York Army) and Conley Monk (Connecticut, Marine Corps). Vietnam Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America Connecticut State Council and the National Veterans Council for Legal Redress also joined the lawsuit.

"We want the records correction boards for all service branches to implement consistent, medically appropriate standards for the consideration of the applications of Vietnam veterans seeking discharge upgrades because of their PTSD attributable to military service," said Thomas Brown, a Yale law student working on the lawsuit.

Siders said he wants to have his discharge upgrade and the "government to stand up and pay for my medicine.

"I was wounded over there and got a Purple Heart. I was in three helicopter crashes. … Out of 40 major operations (in the Vietnam War), I was involved in 26 of them," Siders said.

Brown said the law students think there could be around 70,000 to 80,000 veterans in a similar situation to Siders’. According to the lawsuit, PTSD wasn’t "fully recognized by the medical community until 1980, well after the completion of the Vietnam War" in 1975. Siders received his discharge on May 5, 1971.

Even after PTSD was identified, the law students argue the military record correction boards did not apply medically appropriate standards to people with PTSD.

In Siders’ case, he applied for a discharge upgrade in 2003, and the Board for Correction of Naval Records initially approved his request based on his account for his unauthorized leave, "his service in a combat zone, and his subsequent good citizenship," according to the lawsuit.

However, according to the lawsuit, the assistant general counsel of the Navy at the time crossed out the word "approved" and wrote "disapproved" in Siders’ case. The lawsuit states subsequent appeals by Siders were not acted upon by the board.

Siders has been diagnosed with PTSD; the lawsuit does not state specifically when the diagnosis occurred, but notes he has been treated for it since 2004. The lawsuit stated that if Siders were in the Marine Corps today, he would get a medical examination prior to his discharge, would be diagnosed with PTSD, and likely would receive a medical discharge instead of an "other than honorable "discharge.

Siders applied for a discharge upgrade again in February 2012 and submitted new evidence, including his PTSD. The board denied his application.

"Due to the (Board of for Correction of Naval Records) decision, Mr. Siders is generally disqualified from receiving VA benefits. As a result of untreated PTSD, his relationships with his wife and children have suffered and he has experienced difficulties at work. In addition, PTSD has at times substantially limited his ability to care for himself. For more than 40 years, he has borne the stigma and shame of an other than honorable discharge," the lawsuit states.

Siders, 64, said he was recently let go from Pratt Industries in Conyers after working for the company for 25 years. He moved to northern Newton County about eight months ago to be close to his daughter.

Without a job and without benefits, he’s afraid he won’t be able to pay for his medicine for PTSD.

"So, I’ll have to quit taking the medicine and take my chances," Siders said.

"No, I can’t get anything; I can’t get no medical attention," he said, when asked if he could receive any veterans’ benefits. "I’m paying for that myself, but the government ought to be taking care of that. I didn’t ask to go."

Siders, who is married, said PTSD has affected every part of his life. His wife would have to him wake him up from nightmares from afar using a broom.

"You don’t have a lot of control over what you do, and you’ll fly of the deep end at the drop of a hat. You’re ready to fight anybody," Siders said.

Siders said a lot of Vietnam veterans are in worse shape than him, homeless and hopeless. "The government is not even trying to help them," he said. "The government will spend $150,000 putting a criminal in jail, but they won’t help the Vietnam veteran, the Korean veteran."

The Veterans Legal Services Clinic previously brought a similar case against the U.S. Army in 2011, representing John W. Shepherd Jr., who received an other than honorable discharge in 1969. He also suffered from PTSD, according to the Service Clinic. The case was settled in November 2013 with Shepherd receiving a general (under honorable conditions) discharge) and the Army paying $37,000 in attorney’s fees. Brown said that case was going to be turned into a class- action lawsuit, but the case was settled before that happened.

PTSD veterans lawsuit