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Illinois Iraq War vet with PTSD wins class-action suit to upgrade discharge, get VA benefits

Tyson Manker’s case also could help thousands of other vets with post-traumatic stress disorder try to upgrade less-than-honorable discharges and get benefits.

Tyson Manker outside Karbala, Iraq, in 2003. The Illinois veteran led a class-action lawsuit — for which there’s now a preliminary settlement — that’s expected to help thousands of vets who have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.
Tyson Manker outside Karbala, Iraq, in 2003. The Illinois veteran led a class-action lawsuit — for which there’s now a preliminary settlement — that’s expected to help thousands of vets who have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.
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As a Marine in combat and later as an aimless young veteran, Tyson Manker faced a lot of rough times.

But now the Illinois man has won his latest and potentially most broad-reaching battle — this one fought in court. And it should help him and thousands of other U.S. military vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

A preliminary settlement of his class-action lawsuit against the Navy, once finalized, will help veterans given “other-than-honorable” and “general” military discharges due to PTSD — and who, as a result, were locked out of health care, injury compensation, college money and other benefits usually available to vets.

Like Manker, many went untreated and were flagged for behavioral problems.

“Think about how wrong this situation is,” Manker says. “We’re going to send you home with no benefits and with injuries and with this scarlet letter, and ‘Good luck.’ ”

As Manker, who’s from the small downstate town of South Jacksonville near Springfield, describes it, he’s been to hell and back — twice.

The first time was in Iraq, where he was deployed as a patriotic young Marine with a promising career but left under a cloud as he struggled with what he had seen and experienced there.

The second time, years later, was in Texas, when he was nearly stabbed to death. That turned out to be a wake-up call, he says, to fix his own life and do what he could to help other veterans.

Now, Manker says he’s got a lot to be happy about.

“I am finally able to feel totally proud of my service,” he says.

Tyson Manker stands atop Al-Shaab Stadium, overlooking Baghdad. Behind him is a huge image of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
Tyson Manker stands atop Al-Shaab Stadium, overlooking Baghdad. Behind him is a huge image of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
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Manker, 40, enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1999 when he was 18. In 2003, he was deployed to the Middle East during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Here’s what he remembers most from that time:

Dead and dismembered fighters and civilians.

Land mines and improvised explosive devices.

A close friend and comrade who accidentally killed himself with a gunshot to the head.

Also, as a mortar gunner, he was subjected to repeated subconcussive blasts.

Manker and his unit received the Presidential Unit Citation for “extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy” and for “gallantry, determination and esprit de corps in … extremely difficult and hazardous conditions.”

He received other honors, too, and, in his final two evaluations, was rated “excellent” for proficiency and conduct.

Then-Marine Corp. Tyson Manker displays an anti-tank grenade found in a weapons cache in March 2003 near Az Zubayr, Iraq.
Tyson Manker displays an anti-tank grenade found in a weapons cache in March 2003 near Az Zubayr, Iraq.
National Archives

Looking back, Manker says he already was showing classic signs of PTSD — nightmares, hypervigilance, fears for his own life.

One night before getting a month of leave at home, Manker says he and two junior Marines shared some marijuana.

After he returned from his leave, he was non-judicially charged with use or possession of a controlled substance. Though his medical assessment showed no evidence of substance dependence — and recommended that his trauma be addressed — Manker says in the lawsuit that he got no help for his PTSD.

Instead, within months, he was pushed out of the military with an “other-than-honorable” discharge — “bad paper,” vets call it.

Leaving the service with such a discharge means a vet can’t access health care provided by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, including an assessment and treatment of previously undiagnosed PTSD, traumatic brain injury or trauma from military sexual assault.

It also means forfeiting GI Bill money for college and not being able to tap veterans disability benefits, housing assistance or special unemployment programs.

Manker says he became unmoored.

In time, he found a job, doing motorcycle repair work and living in Texas.

That’s when he got stabbed. He was out with a friend in Austin. A man pulled what Manker thought at first was a gun to rob the friend. It turned out to be a knife. The man used it to attack Manker. He stabbed him in the face and neck.

Manker says he remembers waking up in a hospital room, surprised to be alive.

Having that near-death experience far from the battlefield, it turned out, “shook me from this haze that I was in.”

He came back home to Illinois and enrolled in community college, then went on to the University of Illinois-Springfield, from which he graduated magna cum laude.

Because of his other-than-honorable discharge, he couldn’t use the GI Bill for his education. So he took out loans — enough eventually to also pay his way through law school at Western Michigan University.

Tyson Manke.
Tyson Manker.
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Then, he decided to challenge his discharge, to try to get it upgraded to honorable, based on new understanding of PTSD and a 2014 memo from then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that said such requests should be given “liberal consideration.”

Manker struck out on his first attempt. So he contacted Yale Law School’s legal clinic for veterans, which agreed to help.

His class-action suit was filed in early 2018 in federal court in Connecticut. This month, his lawyers and attorneys for the Navy agreed to a settlement that — once approved by a judge — will change Manker’s discharge to honorable and will lay out a path for other veterans with PTSD to overturn their own “bad paper.”

The settlement comes as other-than-honorable discharges have, over time, been on the rise. Since 2001, more than 2.7 million military personnel have served on active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and about 15% of them left with less-than-honorable discharges, according to the lawsuit. That’s far more than the 7% of Vietnam-era vets and 2% of World War II-era veterans who got such discharges.

Under the preliminary settlement, which would affect those who served in the Navy, Marines and Navy and Marine reserves, the Navy will automatically reconsider certain discharge upgrade decisions made since March 2, 2012. And vets whose discharge decisions were made between Oct. 7, 2001 and March 2, 2012 will be granted the right to try to get them changed.

The Navy also will allow video hearings, making it easier for vets who can’t afford to travel to Washington to make their case in person.

The Navy declined to comment.

A video hearing on final approval of Manker’s settlement is set for Dec. 16.

Blake Shultz, a recent Yale law grad who’s worked on the case for nearly three years, says it has the potential to transform the lives of thousands of veterans with undiagnosed PTSD, some who ended up homeless or with criminal records after leaving the military.

“This settlement is a small but very important first step,” Shultz says.

Manker plans to continue using his legal skills. But he’ll also tap his newly won GI Bill for music school, starting in January.

Tyson Manker says playing guitar brought him relief from his PTSD symptoms.
Tyson Manker says playing guitar brought him relief from his PTSD symptoms.
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In Iraq, Manker promised himself that, when he got home, he’d learn to play the guitar. He says he found solace in playing the instrument and formed a rock band called Neonmoms.

“I’m thankful that I can hang an honorable discharge on my wall,” Manker says, “and that, when I die, there will be a flag folded in my honor.”

READ SUN-TIMES JULY 11 REPORT

Click here to read July 11, 2011, Sun-Times report on another vet’s benefits victory.
Click here to read July 11 Sun-Times report on another vet’s benefits victory.