Eric Highfill spent five years in the Navy, fixing airplanes for special-operations forces. His discharge papers show an Iraq campaign medal and an Afghanistan campaign medal, a good conduct medal, and that he's a marksman with a pistol and sharpshooter with a rifle.
None of that matters, because at the bottom of the page it reads "Discharged: under other than honorable conditions."
Highfill, a 27-year-old Michigan native, says he got addicted to the painkillers he was taking for a knee injury. In the Navy's eyes, Highfill screwed up. He got a DUI, among other things, and so they kicked him out. And that means when he went to a VA medical center, they did the same.
"I went down to the Battle Creek, Va., and I spoke with the receptionist. She looked at my discharge and said, 'Well, you have a bad discharge. ... Congress does not recognize you as a veteran.' And they turned me away," Highfill says.
Highfill and more than 100,000 other troops left the armed services with "bad paper" over the past decade of war. Many went to war, saw combat, even earned medals before they broke the rules of military discipline or in some cases committed serious crimes. The bad discharge means no VA assistance, no disability compensation, no GI Bill, and it's a red flag on any job application. Most veterans service organizations don't welcome bad paper vets, and even many private sector jobs programs for vets accept honorable discharge only.
"They want nothing to do with you," Highfill says. "They won't give you a job, they won't take care of you, they don't want to help you out. The jobs I get are usually hard hard-labor jobs."
The VA confirmed Highfill's visit, and claimed he was offered information on how to appeal his status. The VA can do its own independent evaluation of a veteran's character of service before rejecting or accepting a vet with a bad discharge. Highfill's story is consistent with dozens of other veterans who spoke to NPR.
The Other War
Many veterans with bad paper argue that their conduct was the result of post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. That's what Army veteran Reed Holway says led to his bad-conduct discharge.
Holway, 29, went to Iraq in 2005 for a 13-month tour, as the insurgency was ramping up. Something was always exploding. Early in his tour he watched a mortar drop into a building on base right in front of him.
"I heard a deep thud that kinda turned my gut inside out. I turned around and just as I did I saw what looked like a football coming out of the sky and ... blowing [a] building to smithereens," Holway says. "I was close enough to it that the drink in my cargo pocket had broken and I thought I'd urinated in my pants."
After a fellow soldier died, Holway had trouble sleeping; the clinic on base proscribed him Prozac and Ambien. His post-deployment medical screening showed depression and violent, even suicidal thoughts. It didn't get better back in the U.S. Holway was assigned to Fort Riley, Kan., but he started drinking heavily.
Months before he would have finished his enlistment, Holway had a breakdown while he was baby-sitting his girlfriend's child.
"I was on a bender and I couldn't handle the baby screaming," he says. "It did something to me inside that made me want to die. ... And I couldn't channel these feelings. And the screaming, it got to a point where, I don't know why, but I struck the child. Something went through my head like, 'I really shouldn't do this.' "
The blows left a mark, and Holway soon found himself before a court-martial. He did time for the assault and then went home to New Hampshire with a bad-conduct discharge. His father says the Army sent home an entirely different person from the young man who enlisted.
"I gave them a fine human being and they gave me back a damaged boy, with no concern about what they'd done," says Bill Holway, Reed's father.
"That's what I got back, and it's taken us years to get him back to where he is right now," he says. "I think that if you go over there and you put your life on the line, and you're hurt, there ought to be a compensation for that."
Holway counts himself lucky that he can work for his father, a building contractor in New Hampshire. His discharge makes it hard to find another job. With no VA health care, he's paying out of pocket for treatment of PTSD, which a civilian doctor diagnosed.
Cases like this present a dilemma, says retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli, former vice chief of the Army. He says there's no perfect way to diagnose PTSD or TBI.
"We want to be able to determine whether a person demonstrating certain behavior, whether that's due to trauma of war or whether it is due to a person just not doing their job and not being a good soldier sailor, airman or marine," he says.
Chiarelli said commanders agonize over the decision to pursue a bad discharge.
"It's an extremely difficult decision to make," he says. "Someone has gone to war with you, has served [and] comes back and starts getting into trouble. I would argue that 99.9 percent of commanders err on the side of the soldier, but folks take advantage of system," he says.
The Pentagon declined comment for this story.
For some veterans with bad paper, it's worse than if they never served, says Phil Carter, an Iraq vet now at the Center for a New American Security.
"The nation's long had a social contract with its troops that says we will send you to war, and when you come home we will care for you," Carter says. "There's been this gap; this population that's gone to war and earned the benefits of that social contract, but for whatever reason had these benefits taken away."
Carter says vets who fall into that gap show up in high numbers among the homeless, drug and alcohol abusers and those with untreated PTSD. He says the longer they're left without help, the higher the cost to society.
As the holiday season approaches, the TV cupboard may seem a bit bare; the industry winds down like everything else, filling cable and broadcast networks with holiday specials, reruns and also-ran reality shows.
But there are bright gifts, too: TNT offers Mob City, a three-week, lavishly produced noir-ish TV show about cops and crooks vying for control of 1947-era Los Angeles, airing Wednesdays.
On Dec. 8 and 9, A&E presents a four-hour miniseries on Bonnie and Clyde, retelling the story of the Depression-era outlaws and lovers.
If you miss The Walking Dead, the Sundance Channel has The Returned, a French series airing on Thursdays and Sundays about dead people returning to life in a town, unaware that they are dead and looking like they did right before death (with subtitles, it feels like a well-made, eight-hour foreign film).
Fans of NBC's singing competition The Voice can check out The Sing-Off, which returns Monday as a competition of a capella groups, and if you must see a reality show, try Discovery's Dude, You're Screwed, a series starting Sunday that snatches up a survival expert from his everyday life (all of the contestants in the first series are men) and plops him into an unforgiving environment with 100 hours to get back to civilization.
I think I'd take the cameraman hostage, myself.
Inside Llewyn Davis is set in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 1960s. In a scene from the Coen brothers movie, the fictional Llewyn Davis sits on stage and sings a tune that Dave Van Ronk performed and recorded. Like Van Ronk, the fictional Davis has dark hair and a beard, and spent some time in the merchant marine. And the album cover for the fictional LP that gives the movie its title looks just like the real 1963 LP Inside Dave Van Ronk.
Elijah Wald, a writer and musician who took guitar lessons from Van Ronk, says that's where the similarities end.
"Nothing about the character is like Dave Van Ronk," Wald says. "He was just this huge presence. He was 6'3", 200-something pounds."
Wald helped write Van Ronk's posthumous memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, which was titled after the Greenwich Village street that was home to The Gaslight Cafe and other folk clubs in the early 1960s.
"Dave was the king of that world. He really knew New York, he really knew history, he really knew music," Wald says.
Van Ronk also knew how to tell a story, a talent he displayed on stage between songs. That talent was front and center on 2004's And the tin pan bended and the story ended..., a live recording of his last concert.
"I have often thought back and wondered just what my reaction would have been at age 17 if someone had told me I would go through most of my life being called a folk singer," Van Ronk said during the show. "I probably would've slashed my wrists."
The performance was recorded in October of 2001, just months before he died of colon cancer. Despite what his legacy leaves behind, Van Ronk never thought of himself as a folk singer.
"What I really wanted — I wanted to play jazz in the worst way," he said. "And I did."
Van Ronk grew up in Brooklyn and Queens. He moved to Greenwich Village as a teenager in the early '50s and tried to make it playing in old-time jazz bands. But he found more success singing blues and folk songs in the clubs that were springing up in the village.
He recorded a handful of well-received albums in the early 1960s. Wald says he became a mentor to younger musicians, including Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan. In fact, Dylan borrowed one of Van Ronk's arrangements for his first album.
"He asked me if I would mind if he recorded my version of 'House of the Rising Sun,'" Van Ronk said years later in the Dylan documentary No Direction Home. "So I said, 'Well gee, Bob, I'd rather you didn't because I'm gonna record it myself soon.' And Bobby said, 'Uh oh.'"
Van Ronk said he had to stop playing the song because people thought he'd stolen it from Dylan. He laughed in the documentary as he remembered things eventually coming full circle.
"Later on, when Eric Burdon and The Animals picked the song up from Bobby and recorded it, Bobby told me that he had to drop it, because everyone accused him of ripping it off from Eric Burdon," Van Ronk said.
Over time, Dylan and most other fixtures of the folk scene moved out of Greenwich Village. But Van Ronk stayed put, taking on students between gigs to pay the bills.
Andrea Vuocolo married Van Ronk in 1988. She still lives in the small apartment they shared, which is packed with her late husband's books, guitars and collections of African and Native American art. Vuocolo says her husband read voraciously, and was also a keen observer of the neighborhood.
"He used to tell stories about the village in the '50s and '60s," Vuocolo says. "And there were a lot of people hanging around the clubs who were not musicians. You know, locals, a lot of petty thieves and odd characters. ... He wanted to write more about the whole neighborhood."
But Van Ronk died before he could write more than a few chapters of his memoir. Elijah Wald was able to finish the book using a combination of interviews and stories Van Ronk had told from the stage; the memoir went on to inspire Inside Llewyn Davis.
The last time the Coens built a movie around music, the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? sold millions of copies and spurred an old-time music revival. Van Ronk's widow hopes this movie will do the same for her husband's legacy.
"It's very nice to just see people finally paying attention to his work more," Vuocolo says. "And I think that would have been great for him. Just to be noticed more, and have more people listen and understand what he was about."
At his final concert, Van Ronk joked that there were lines around the block to see the Beat generation poets in Greenwich Village coffee houses.
"This presented a logistical problem for the owners of coffee houses — how to get people out of there, and get new people in. So they hired folk singers," he said. "They'd get up and sing three songs. If, at the end of three songs, anybody was still seated, we could get fired. We turned the house over just like that."
The tourists might have left, but when Dave Van Ronk started singing, the musicians stayed to listen.
With a new White House push to promote the Affordable Care Act well underway, the question is whether an improved HealthCare.gov site and onslaught of positive talking points will be enough to bolster Senate Democrats facing tough races in 2014.
One re-election fight to watch is Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's in New Hampshire. , where she's been taking heat for supporting the new health care law.
Step inside a small diner called Chez Vachon in a working-class section of Manchester, N.H.,, and you'd never guess the White House is actually regaining its footing on the health care rollout. The president is reporting promising enrollment numbers and a faster website, but John Hill couldn't care less.
"My insurance just went up a thousand dollars," says Hill. "We asked why the price of the insurance was so high. They said, 'Well, the new Obamacare law. That's the reason why.' "
That law had some pretty severe repercussions in New Hampshire. A strong Tea Party faction in the state Legislature voted down a state health insurance exchange, so everyone in the state applying for insurance under the Affordable Care Act has to sign up on the federal government website.
But that federal exchange has drawn only one insurance provider for New Hampshire: Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield. And Anthem shut out 10 of the state's 26 hospitals from its health plans on the exchange, which means traveling in a car for an hour or more for many people in northern New Hampshire who need to see a doctor.
Hill says he's absolutely not voting for Shaheen next year.
"She voted for this. She knew what she was getting into," says Hill. "Now she realizes, 'Oh, this is a big mistake.'"
Shaheen was one of most vocal Democrats to criticize the launch of HealthCare.gov. She's demanded an extension of the enrollment period, and asked President Obama to appoint someone to oversee website fixes into next year.
Theresa Avard says Shaheen's just trying to have it both ways by distancing herself from a law so many people in New Hampshire hate.
"You can't be a yo-yo," says Avard. "I'm sorry, you know. That's what I call my grandchildren when they don't do right. They yo-yo, up and down."
But Shaheen rejects the suggestion that she's just protecting herself for the next election cycle.
"This should not be about politics. This should be about good policy," says Shaheen. "I've been working on health care issues since I first was elected to the state senate from the seacoast of New Hampshire over 20 years ago."
On this day, she's touring the national visa center in Portsmouth to draw attention to a program granting visas for Iraqis and Afghans who risked their lives working for the U.S. Since the rollout of the new health care law, Shaheen hasn't hosted any town hall meetings. But she says her office has been inundated with angry complaints from people upset about the launch.
Still, Shaheen says: "It's a long time from now to [November of] 2014. And I think we're going to get the problems fixed with the health care law.
"I think there will probably be other things that come up, just as there are when we're making that significant of policy change," says Shaheen. "But the way to deal with it [is] to find those fixes."
Toppling Shaheen in 2014 is going to take a formidable force. She was a popular three-term governor who's still enjoying pretty solid poll numbers.
"For Shaheen, right now, Obamacare is the only cloud in the sky in New Hampshire," says Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "So what she needs to do is just keep guard and not become complacent with what is clearly a winning position at this point."
Former Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts keeps flirting with the idea of running against her, and he has the star power, but he still won't commit.
Bob Smith, a former U.S. senator, has announced his candidacy, but he still needs to move back to New Hampshire from Florida, where he failed twice to win a Senate seat. And the other Republican candidates just don't have much name recognition.
As split as New Hampshire is over the health care law, it's a big question whether people are going to be focusing on other things by next fall.
Back at Chez Vachon, Bob Garon says Republicans need to give up on their obsession with the Affordable Care Act.
"I really don't think that we are going to elect a politician because of Obamacare," says Garon. "I think what's going to sink in is it's the law — whether you like it or not. You can bounce it around and play tennis with it all you want, but it's the damn law."
But the New Hampshire state Republican Party says it plans to make Obamacare a central issue next fall.
"There's no question that what voters care about right now is the collapse of Obamacare — the failed rollout, the increased costs, the decreased access to quality health insurance," says Jennifer Horn, chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "So absolutely that is something we will be talking about."
Patients with severe epilepsy are giving scientists the chance to see the human brain in action, a view they could never get with an MRI or other high-tech tools.
By applying small jolts of electricity to the brain, they're able to wipe out a person's ability to recognize faces, spark hallucinations, or even induce a will to persevere, as researchers reported last week.
None of this would be possible without patients like 41-year-old Nate Bennett of Santa Cruz, Calif. He's had epilepsy since he was a teenager and it's getting worse, to the point where he worries that he'll lose his job as a restaurant manager.
In his back pocket, Bennett carries around a black leather wallet about the size of an envelope, attached to a keychain. He made it himself. His teeth have left deep scars in the leather. That's a good sign: it means he had time to prepare.
"If I'm conscious and I feel the seizure starting, I warn people around me what's going on," he says. "I lay down on the floor and I put this in my mouth. That way when I wake up, I may not have bitten my tongue."
Bennett has one or two grand mal seizures a month, sometimes in the middle of the work day. He's unable to drive, and worries about having to go on disability and losing his health insurance. Medication isn't helping.
That makes Bennett a potential candidate for surgery to remove the part of his brain that's causing the seizures, and possibly cure his epilepsy.
The first step is to find out whether his seizures originate in a specific place in the brain, and if so, whether that's a part of the brain that could safely be removed.
Back in August, Bennett underwent surgery to implant electrodes in his brain at Stanford University Hospital in Palo Alto. The electrodes are designed to read his brain's electrical activity, including the electrical storms that cause his seizures.
Waking from anesthesia, Bennett was groggy but gave a visitor the thumbs up. "I'm putting reality back together here... gradually," he says with a smile.
A doctor tells Bennett that while he was unconscious, a surgeon implanted seven wires in his brain, two in the right hemisphere and five in the left. Each is a bit thicker than a human hair and extends about 1½ inches into his brain.
"What a party," Bennett replies wryly.
Nate will spend a week or more in the hospital. To keep himself occupied, he's brought a bag of musical instruments and a copy of "Siddhartha," by Hermann Hesse.
A few days after the electrodes were implanted, Nate welcomed visitors into his hospital room. His head is wrapped in bandages. A thick braid of wires hangs from his left temple.
At the bedside is Dr. Josef Parvizi, an associate professor of neurology at Stanford University and Nate's doctor. Today, Parvizi is going to send tiny jolts of electricity along the electrodes and into Nate's brain.
Essentially, he's exploring Nate's brain, neuron by neuron.
To be clear, this is completely painless. But very strange things happen when you stimulate the brain this way.
One of Nate's electrodes is located in the dorsal anterior cingulate, a part of the brain associated with automatic speech, like saying "ouch" or "whoa." Parvizi sends a small four-milliamp jolt there.
Nate suddenly lurches forward.
"I became unable to speak," he tells Parvizi. "I was going to say 'jinx'. I, I, I ... I started stuttering. I couldn't get the words out."
The notion that epilepsy offers a window into the brain has a long history.
In the 19th century, English neurologist John Hughlings Jackson observed an epileptic seizure that seemed to travel from one part of his patient's body to another.
To Jackson, this revealed that the disease was affecting parts of the brain in succession, each with a corresponding effect on the body. This phenomenon is still called the "Jacksonian March."
"Epilepsy gave us our first clue that parts of the brain are responsible for parts of the body, or for different senses," says Dr. Edward Chang, a neurologist and neurosurgeon at the University of California San Francisco, whose work with epilepsy patients has led to key findings about how humans process speech.
In the 1960s, a Canadian epilepsy specialist named Wilder Penfield found that by stimulating certain parts of the brain, he could make people move their hands involuntarily, or report a smell of burning leather.
Parvizi is one of a handful of neuroscientists who have picked up Penfield's torch, showing that brain regions correspond not just to body parts or senses, but to emotions.
In a video of an experiment with another epilepsy patient, Parvizi sends a small jolt of electricity to a part of the brain called the anterior midcingulate cortex, a part of the brain located about two inches behind the bridge of the nose.
The patient's heart begins to race. Parvizi asks him to describe how he feels.
"I started getting this feeling like I was driving into a storm," the man says. "As if one of the tires was half flat, and you're only halfway there. There's no way to turn around and go back. You have to keep going forward."
Parvizi asks, "Was this negative or was it positive?"
This is the part that's most interesting to Parvizi and his colleagues, because while the patient clearly feels a sense of danger, he feels something else, too: a determination to get through it.
"It was more of positive thing," the patient says. "Like, 'Push harder, push harder to get through this.' "
When the anterior midcingulate cortex is stimulated, Parvizi says, patients "have the will to go towards the storm" and fight, "rather than giving up, being scared, depressed and running back."
This study, which was published last week in the journal Neuron, lines up with other research on the area of the brain known as the "salience network," says coauthor Dr. Michael Greicius, an assistant professor of neurology at Stanford University.
"Over the last 20 years or so we've started to get this sense for a network that's constantly scanning the environment and manipulating the internal environment," Greicius says. It does that by adjusting heart rate and blood pressure, reducing blood flow from the gut, and "generally shifting [the body's] resources from what's less urgent to the task at hand."
"That's the beauty of evolution, right?" says Parvizi. "If you really are going to go through difficulty, you'd better have higher blood pressure so your muscles can get the blood and run or fight."
This illustrates the great debt that neuroscience owes to patients like Nate Bennett, says Dr. Orrin Devinsky, a professor of neurology at NYU Langone School of Medicine.
It is one thing, Devinsky says, to study the brain through MRI scans or animal models. It's another thing to zap a specific part of the brain and be able to ask the patient to describe what happens.
"We only use these electrodes if there's a clinical application," says Devinsky, "but once they're in, we have this incredible scientific opportunity."
Brain stimulation is already used to treat certain disorders, including Parkinson's disease and in experimental settings, for depression. Devinsky says Parvizi's findings might hint at future therapies.
But for now, the goal is to solve the problem of Nate Bennett's epilepsy, starting by figuring out where his seizures are coming from.
Back at the hospital in August, Parvizi flips a switch and a jolt of electricity enters Bennett's brain.
"I feel a change," warns Bennett. "I might have a seizure."
Bennett's face hardens. His eyes fix on some invisible spot across the room. He's having a seizure. This is a good thing. The electrodes implanted in his brain have recorded exactly where it came from.
But further testing reveals that there is not just one source of Bennett's seizures, or even two. Instead, they come from points spread out across his brain. So he's not a candidate for surgery to stop the seizures.
This was disappointing, Bennett says. But being part of a scientific experiment was a silver lining.
"For me, I'd like to see something positive come out of it all, even if it's for somebody else. You know?" he says, after the electrodes were removed and he was back at work.
And his exploration isn't over, Bennett says. A new epilepsy device called the NeuroPace - kind of like a pacemaker for the brain — recently got FDA premarket approval.
Pretty soon he'll start looking into that.