Under fire in Vietnam, John Shepherd Jr. tossed a grenade into an enemy bunker and killed several Viet Cong. He earned a Bronze Star for valor. Then he refused to fight anymore.
For his refusal, Shepherd received an other-than-honorable discharge from the army in 1969. That’s when a new fight began—a fight that has now ended with a landmark victory for vets wrestling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
After years struggling with mental illness, homelessness, and unemployment Shepherd sued the army in 2012. He claimed that PTSD made him refuse orders in Vietnam, leading to his other-than-honorable discharge.
With the help of Yale student attorneys, Shepherd, now 66-years-old, last week settled the lawsuit, finally earning an honorable discharge. The change in his discharge status means that he will finally be able to receive the medical care and disability benefits that he had been denied, said Jessica Martinez, a Yale student attorney.
The settlement may also open the door for other PTSD-diagnosed veterans to follow Shepherd’s path and earn honorable discharges of their own.
“I didn’t know if this day would ever come,” Shepherd said in a release. “Good thing I’m a fighter, because it took years of fighting to receive recognition of my sacrifices and service in Vietnam. But there are thousands of guys like me who also deserve better from the Department of Defense. Their fight is still going.”
Shepherd, who’s from New Haven, declined an interview request.
Shepherd joined the army in 1968 and ended up in Vietnam. After the incident with the grenade, and after he saw his platoon leader killed by a sniper, Shepherd started exhibiting signs what is now known as PTSD. At the time, the disorder had not yet been identified.
Eventually, Shepherd refused to go out on patrol. He was court-martialed and discharged.
Back in civilian life, Shepherd continued to struggle with PTSD, ending up homeless. Only recently was he finally able to access PTSD treatment, while still being denied Veterans Administration medical care and disability benefits because of his other-then-honorable discharge.
That status has also made it hard for Shepherd to find work, Martinez said. Lots of employers look at discharge forms, which show how he was discharged, she said. “That’s known to be problematic.”
Even when he could find work, Shepherd’s PTSD made it hard for him to keep jobs, Martinez said.
Thousands of veterans may be in similar situations, according to Tom Berger, head of Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA).
VVA had filed to join Shepherd’s lawsuit and the Yale lawyers sought to make it a class-action claim. When the army settled, however, the class-action motions were dismissed, Martinez said. No class action suit is now pending, but VVA is “weighing its options,” Martinez said.
As a settlement, the resolution of Shepherd’s case won’t create a new legal precedent. But it will be “an example other veterans can use,” Martinez said.