LAST OCTOBER, before President Carter signed legislation designed to improve the process by which military discharge-review boards would treat veterans holding "bad papers," several of the President's advisers suggested he veto the bill. They had sound reasons. The legislation's restrictiveness placed an additional burden on a group of veterans who were already plagued by high rates of unemployment and severe readjustment to GI benefits was contrary to the spirit of forgiveness and compassion mentioned by the President when he pardoned draft evaders last January. When the President signed the bill, White House officials assured veterans that all was not lost; new regulations still to be drafted by the Department of Defense would be much less harsh than the intentions of the new law.
In mid-December, the proposed regulations were issued. In reading them, we see little in their vagueness and lack of uniformity that does much to assist veterans in practical or efficient ways. Nothing in them, for example, assures a veteran of an easy way to apply to a discharge-review board, such as calling an 800 number or other kinds of simplified access. Many veterans who have gone through the procedures once or several times already are not likely to be ready to take on a relatively inaccessible review board again. A second deficiency is the lack of free counsel, a provision that was part of the original Carter program. Third, nothing is said about publicizing the new guidelines. How many veterans with less-than-honorable discharges - a group consumed by financial, educational, psychological and social problems - read the Federal Register, much less understand its bureaucratese?
Recently, the National Military Discharge Review Project of the American Civil Liberties Union listed four major inadequacies in the proposals. The project's officials believe the proposals are not sufficiently specific to ensure uniformity among the review boards as they reach their decisions; the actual rules under which the boards operate are not stated; standards required by law are not included ; and the low-income veteran receives little consideration.
Although the ACLU and private veterans' organizations are expected to challenge the proposals in the period allowed for comment (until Jan. 13), others ought to involve themselves also. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, who worked to pass the new law and who had criticized the vague and unspecific standards that existed earlier, should speak up. The President, who a year ago seemed intent on standing with the Vietnam veterans but whose record to date has been a disappointment, should involve himself in this matter; it is not Congress that is now standing in the way of assisting the "bad paper" veterans but his own administration.
More than two weeks remain for Sen. Cranston and the President to bring their influence to bear. Rather than wait for oversight hearings at some point down the road to bring out the weaknesses of the regulations - or, worse, assume that the review-board problems will go away by themselves - why not repair them now? Even with sound regulations, many of the veterans applying to the review boards are likely to have problems that are difficult enough - not the least of which is the realization of many of them that they should never have been accepted for military service in the first place.