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Veterans Legal Services Clinic Assists Purple Heart Recipient Seeking Discharge Upgrade

Earlier this week, a federal judge denied the Army’s effort to have the case of William Dolphin, a disabled Vietnam combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient, thrown out of court. Judge Warren W. Eginton of the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut ruled that Dolphin could proceed with his challenge to the Army’s refusal to consider his application for a discharge upgrade. Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic is representing Dolphin.

“I’ve been living with my injuries from Vietnam for 40 years,” said Dolphin. “The government’s refusal even to consider my application has added to the shame of living with a bad discharge. I hope with this ruling the Army will finally recognize my service.”

Dolphin entered the Army at age 18 and served in some of the most intensive combat operations of the Vietnam War. He suffered life-threatening injuries during an intense firefight after climbing a tree to scout an unidentified enemy position, helping to save his unit. Mortar fire blew Dolphin out of the tree and knocked him unconscious. He awoke unable to feel or move his limbs.

The Army evacuated Dolphin from the battlefield and eventually transferred him to a hospital in Queens, New York, where he was awarded the Purple Heart. From Queens, he returned home to New Haven to convalesce. Years later, he was arrested, charged with being absent without leave, and sentenced to a Bad Conduct discharge.

In 2011, Dolphin was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and a Traumatic Brain Injury, neither of which the Army had considered at the time of his discharge. He immediately applied to the Army to upgrade his discharge to Honorable. The Army refused to even look at Dolphin’s application and summarily returned it. In this lawsuit, Dolphin v. McHugh, Dolphin asked the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut to order the Army to upgrade his discharge status and relieve him of the stigma of a bad discharge that he has carried on top of his grave physical and mental injuries from Vietnam.

In a ten-page opinion, Judge Eginton refused the government’s request to dismiss Dolphin’s case on technical grounds.

“The court has provided Mr. Dolphin – and many other Vietnam veterans like him - a critical right to court review of his discharge status,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). “The military should correct a horrible injustice to our Vietnam veterans and recognize, as they do for today’s active military, that PTSD is a condition that some veterans have as a result of their service to our country. Bad paper discharges resulting from the invisible wounds of war have affected countless veterans, but progress in Mr. Dolphin’s case and the tremendous work of students at the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School are creating a path to right these wrongs. I will fight to reform prevailing polices to make them more fair and compassionate, as I have already discussed with General Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs.”

“As a result of yesterday’s decision, Mr. Dolphin will finally have his day in court,” said Abigail Graber ’14, a law student intern with the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic. “It’s shameful that the Army has refused to even look at the evidence that this veteran was wrongfully court-martialed while suffering from undiagnosed mental illness, including PTSD and a brain injury.”

“When I came back from Vietnam, I couldn’t even walk. At my court martial, I barely remembered what had happened,” Dolphin said. “All I’m asking is that the Army recognize that I served my country proudly.”