Designing with Veterans to Right a Wrong
By Natalie Moore and Amy Behrens
An estimated 11,000 Veterans were discharged from the military due to their sexual orientation before the 2011 repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), a 1993 policy that banned qualified gay and lesbian Americans from serving in the armed forces. Many more Veterans were also discharged due to their sexual orientation long before this policy. Many of these Veterans received a less than honorable discharge also known as “bad papers” within the community. Veterans who have bad papers aren’t eligible for re-enlistment, cannot enroll in services and benefits provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), lose access to competitive jobs, and may experience difficulty attempting to reintegrate back into civilian life. It means they are often not recognized as Veterans by their community. This issue doesn’t just affect the lives of those impacted by DADT — it is estimated that over 75,000 of our Nation’s Veterans have been unfairly less-than-honorable discharged as a result of their sexual orientation, undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), or being victims of sexual assault.
The good news is that the military has since said Veterans discharged under these circumstances are likely to receive an upgraded status if they submit a strong application. However, understanding this process and how to submit a strong application is harder than it seems. That’s where we, the U.S. Digital Service team at the Department of Veterans Affairs (DSVA), came in.
Working with Veterans
To understand the complexity of the discharge upgrade application process, we worked alongside Veterans struggling with the challenges that come with bad papers and the overwhelming confusion about how to navigate the complex process to upgrade. The Veterans we talked to were searching for a better way of life and recognition for the sacrifices they made to serve our country.
“Just me talking, and maybe I’m just talking stupidly, but from what I’ve seen, I don’t believe I can get it upgraded. I haven’t really heard any success stories.” — Veteran Interviewee
To fully understand the problem we sifted through lengthy legal documents, interviewed Veteran Service Organizations (VSOs), learned from subject matter experts at DoD, and collaborated with stakeholders across VA. Through this discovery we learned there are currently two different forms to choose from, eight different boards accepting applications, and the few resources available to help include jargon-filled manuals typically well over 30 pages. As a last resort, many Veterans wind up looking for legal assistance, often costing them upwards of $10,000. One Veteran told us, “If you don’t know the forms, they’re worse than any IRS form you’ve ever looked at.”
What We Designed
Through our Veteran research sessions we better understood the obstacles Veterans had to overcome to submit their application, and we translated their feedback and suggestions into an interactive, simplified online discharge tool that provides a guided experience that produces customized results. Veterans respond to nine questions or less, and then are shown a customized, digestible results page with step-by-step guidance on how to create a strong application to upgrade their discharge status.
We took confusing, existing government language such as: “To justify a correction, it is necessary to show to the satisfaction of the board that the alleged entry or omission in the records was in error or unjust.”
And changed it to use plain language and specific, action-oriented information like this: “Pay special attention to item 6, which asks for the reason for your change.”
Most Veterans attach additional pages to answer this question. For discharges related to sexual assault, be sure to answer these questions to make the strongest case:
• Did you have an experience that may explain or contribute to the discharge?
• Did that experience happen during your military service?
• Why does the experience directly explain or contribute to the discharge?
• Why does the experience carry more weight than any other reasons you may have been discharged for?”
We were also able to customize the results page of the tool to show over 10,000 variations, providing a truly personalized experience.
It’s no secret that the government works in silos, and there were disagreements around which agency should be working to solve this problem. Thanks to our unique position here at DSVA, we were able to form a coalition amongst concerned and invested agency employees across the Department of Defense and VA to launch the tool on Vets.gov. We navigated through the layers of bureaucracy and worked across these silos all while holding true to our USDS mission to deliver better government services through technology and design.
The Veteran response to the Discharge Tool has been overwhelmingly positive — we heard things like, “Wow, can you guys hurry up and put this site up!”
Since it’s launch in December 2017, more than 43,000 Veterans have used the tool, and 32,000 have received guidance on submitting a strong upgrade application. That’s more than half of the Veterans with a less-than-honorable discharge who have a better chance at accessing the care and benefits they’ve earned.
Natalie Moore is a Product Manager at the U.S. Digital Service.
Amy Behrens is a former Content Strategist at the U.S. Digital Service.
Huge shout out to the rest of our team who built this tool: Gabriel Zucker (U.S. Digital Service), Courtney Eimerman-Wallace (U.S. Digital Service Alum) and Mary Ann Brody (U.S. Digital Service Alum), Ben Shyong (Ad Hoc), Sophia Dengo (Ad Hoc), Lt Col Reggie Yager (DoD).
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