By: Shira Schoenberg
Three veterans who sued Massachusetts for denying them a Welcome Home bonus should receive the money, a Suffolk Superior Court judge ruled.
The ruling could affect an estimated 4,000 veterans who served multiple tours of duty and received an other than honorable discharge from the final one, according to the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, which represented the plaintiffs in the case.
Judge Michael Ricciuti found in a Dec. 21 decision that the interpretation of the law by Treasurer Deborah Goldberg’s office, which administers the bonus, and the Veterans’ Bonus Appeal Board was “erroneous as a matter of law, arbitrary and capricious.”
Lead plaintiff Jeffrey Machado said in a statement, “What really matters to me is that other Massachusetts veterans will be recognized for their honorable service to our country. It’s less about the bonus itself — it’s about what it represents.”
Goldberg spokeswoman Chandra Allard said Goldberg’s office is reviewing the decision and has not yet decided whether to appeal.
Massachusetts offers veterans who served after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks a Welcome Home bonus as long as they receive an honorable discharge. The bonus is $1,000 for veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan and $500 for those who served elsewhere for at least six months.
Machado, Herik Espinoza and Washington Santos all served multiple tours of duty, but received “other than honorable” discharges from the final one. Goldberg’s office and then the Veterans’ Bonus Appeal Board declined to pay the bonus. They cited the state law, which says the veteran must have been discharged “under honorable conditions.”
The veterans argue that they were honorably discharged from their initial tours of duty, so they should receive the benefit for those tours. They also note that less than honorable discharges often stem from conduct related to mental or physical problems that come from military service, like post-traumatic stress disorder.
All three served in Afghanistan and were diagnosed with PTSD, which they said led to their discharges.
In his ruling, Ricciuti said the Appeal Board should have given the veterans the bonus for their initial tours of duty. He notes that if a veteran came home between tours and applied for the benefit from the initial tour, he would receive it, even if he later re-enlisted. It would be “unjust,” Ricciuti writes, to deny a benefit to someone who re-enlists from overseas and does not apply for the bonus until after his final tour of duty.
Ricciuti wrote that it is up to the state board, not the military authority who grants the discharge, to decide who gets the Welcome Home Bonus. And he agreed with the veterans that the discharge form granting the “other than honorable” discharge only applied to the most recent tour of duty, not earlier tours.
Riccuiti referred the case back to the Veterans’ Bonus Appeal Board to reconsider its decision in light of the ruling.
Josh Mathew, one of the student attorneys in the Veterans Legal Clinic who represented the plaintiffs, said in a statement, “These veterans went above and beyond. They volunteered for Army Special Operations or for deployments to Afghanistan, and this decision properly recognizes their sacrifices.”