Lawmakers are concerned that veterans who want to challenge their discharge status from the military are not getting a fair shake.
Veterans trying to change their discharge status may send in documents to military Discharge Review Boards (DRB) to help their case, but when it comes to actually making a plea in-person, things get more complicated.
Travel restrictions, technology issues and large caseloads are keeping veterans from personally pleading their case and keeping the military services from hearing out many veterans who think a personal appeal would help.
The only way to make a personal appeal to the review boards is to travel to Washington, D.C., or in some scenarios, testify to the board remotely.
Even with those options military services rarely grant personal testimonies. The Army only hears “two or three” personal testimonies a year, said Francine Blackmon, Army deputy assistant secretary for review boards during a March 2 House Armed Services Military Personnel hearing.
When it comes to providing remote video conferencing between a veteran and the board, the services are having trouble delivering.
In the internet age, when virtually anyone can make a video call to someone with a computer, the review boards are sparingly able to provide video conferences for veterans.
The Navy is unable to provide video teleconferences and the Air Force can only provide them to veterans when the conference is set up on a base.
Those issues have some lawmakers worried.
Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) said a staff member of a DRB told Human Rights Watch personal appearances in front of the board can be beneficial to a case.
Personal testimony is “’huge’ and ‘possibly the difference between getting an upgrade or not,’” Tsongas said Human Rights Watch was told.
And even if veterans are granted a personal audience, the logistics can be burdensome.
“Discharge Review Boards are only located in the Washington, D.C. area, which means that many veterans would find it cost prohibitive to fly themselves, their attorneys or their supporting witnesses to testify in person at a DRB,” said House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee Chairman Mike Coffman (R-Colo.).
The Army is the exception in that it has a quarterly traveling review board.
The military services said part of the reason personal testimony is rarely heard is the number of cases the boards must go through.
Blackmon said the Army Review Boards Agency adjudicates 14,000 cases a year.
“The magnitude of the caseload that we have at the board and the resources that we have, if we added personal hearings, a considerable number of them anyway, it would really stall things out considerably and we are already pretty much at maximum capacity, so I think that would be problematic,” said Robert Woods, assistant general counsel for the Navy assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs.
As for providing video teleconference options, the Navy said it ran into security problems, and as an alternative the service turned to telephonic testimony.
“We’ve had some very good success with that, both from the standpoint of having an increased rate of petitioners showing up to the actual personal appearance,” Woods said.
Critics say telephonic interviews don’t have the same impact as seeing a veteran’s face.
The Air Force provides video conferencing on a West Coast base and at Robins Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Only one member of the board travels to the areas for the video conference.
The challenge “we have is getting past our own firewalls. We are evaluating other technology approaches to try to use something like Skype or Facetime, but that is in the evaluation stage,” said Mark Teskey, director of the Air Force Review Boards Agency.
He said the biggest concern is making those programs compatible with the military networks.