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Injured Vietnam Vet Seeks to Clear His Record

HARTFORD, Conn. (CN) - A Vietnam vet with a Purple Heart sued the Secretary of the Army to clear his record of a bad-conduct discharge.

Central to William P. Dolphin's federal complaint is that the Army did not recognize post-traumatic stress disorder as a service-related disability until 1980, but he was wounded in 1968.

"William P. Dolphin was drafted into the Army in 1967," the complaint states. "Mr. Dolphin deployed to Vietnam and earned a Purple Heart in 1968 when an explosion threw him from a tree he had climbed to pinpoint an enemy position. The Army medically evacuated him from the battlefield and eventually transferred him to St. Albans Hospital in Queens, NY, from where he recalls being sent home on convalescent leave. Years later, he was arrested, charged with being absent without leave, and sentenced by court-martial to a bad conduct discharge.

"For decades, Mr. Dolphin has suffered from the physical and mental injuries he sustained in Vietnam. Seeking recognition for his service and access to VA medical care for the very injuries recognized by his Purple Heart, Mr. Dolphin twice unsuccessfully applied pro se for a discharge upgrade from the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records (ABCMR or Board). Subsequently, in 2011, a psychiatrist diagnosed Mr. Dolphin with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an injury the medical community did not recognize when the Army discharged Mr. Dolphin in 1975. Assisted by undersigned counsel, in 2011 Mr. Dolphin applied to the Board again, presenting new and material evidence and arguments. The ABCMR staff rejected this application without sending it to the Board, and the Board thus failed to waive the statute of limitations in the interest of justice and effectively denied his application on the merits, all in violation of the ABCMR statute and the Administrative Procedure Act.

"Mr. Dolphin seeks judicial review of the ABCMR's denial of his discharge upgrade application. This Court should direct the ABCMR to grant the application or, in the alternative, remand this case to the Board to consider the application with its new and material evidence."

Army screw-ups traumatized his mother too, Dolphin says. After he was blown out of the tree, Dolphin says, the Army sent him to hospitals in Japan and Alaska, on the way to New York.

"During this time, the Army informed Mr. Dolphin's mother that he had died and presented her with his Purple Heart," the complaint states. "The Army did not correct this mistake for approximately one month."

The complaint continues: "While at St. Albans, Mr. Dolphin experienced vivid flashbacks and suffered insomnia because of frequent nightmares of being back on the battlefield.

"Mr. Dolphin recalls being informed by hospital staff that he could go home on convalescent leave. Accordingly, he went to his family's home in Connecticut.

"Mr. Dolphin returned from Connecticut to the hospital two or three times for additional treatment. After each visit, he traveled back to Connecticut.

"While home from the hospital, Mr. Dolphin continued to be plagued by constant pain, memory loss, and depression. He was often dazed, could not pay attention when people spoke to him, and exhibited suicidal tendencies. On one occasion, his mother physically restrained him from jumping out a window in an attempt to take his own life."

In 1974, six years after he was medically evacuated from Vietnam, Dolphin says, FBI agents arrested him at his home for being absent without leave. He was taken to Fort Dix, N.J., and referred to a general court-martial.

Dolphin says he does not recall receiving notice that the Army considered him AWOL.

"At the time of Mr. Dolphin's arrest and in-processing at Fort Dix, military doctors identified several physical and psychological health problems, including back pain, anxiety, and headaches due to his injury in Vietnam, and prescribed medication for his pain and anxiety. The medical community did not recognize PTSD as a psychiatric injury until 1980. Accordingly, no physician at Fort Dix could have diagnosed Mr. Dolphin with PTSD in 1974, and none did," the complaint states.

"While at Fort Dix, Mr. Dolphin was mistreated and threatened. Military police beat him, slammed books on his head, and threatened further beatings.

"Mr. Dolphin's military lawyer advised him that he should plead guilty because otherwise he might face a sentence of twenty years in Fort Leavenworth. Accordingly, Mr. Dolphin entered guilty pleas to all three counts. The judge sentenced Mr. Dolphin to a bad conduct discharge and reduction in rank to E-1."

Dolphin says his treatment was not unique: "During the Vietnam era, the Army punished black soldiers such as Mr. Dolphin more frequently and more harshly than white soldiers, and black soldiers were approximately twice as likely to receive an undesirable discharge."

After his discharge, Dolphin held a variety of odd jobs including working at a furniture store, sweeping a barbershop, working for a moving company, and driving a truck.

"In 1982, he was convicted in Connecticut Superior Court of larceny and aiding and abetting a robbery and sentenced to five to ten years in prison. He served approximately five years," the complaint states/

After his release, Dolphin says, he changed his life and "dedicated himself to his faith."

But he says, "Despite Mr. Dolphin's success in transforming his life, as he has grown older his medical bills have become so debilitating that he cannot afford regular care for many of his conditions."

On Oct. 3, 2011, Dolphin applied to the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records for a discharge upgrade for the third time, this time assisted the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale University. His application was returned without board review and without adjudication on the merits.

He asks the court to upgrade his discharge to honorable or generally honorable conditions so he can receive services through the VA health-care system.

He is represented by Michael Wishnie at the Veterans Legal Services Clinic.

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