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.