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Photo: Tyson Manker

Discharged under other-than-honorable conditions, Manker lost his honor, his confidence and almost his life. Now, he’s suing the military to help vets with PTSD and change the system that nearly destroyed him.

SOUTH JACKSONVILLE, Illinois—“My neck was squirting like a fountain.”

Tyson Manker is in the living room of his childhood home, a bulldog, built like an artillery shell, huffs happily around the house. His mother’s just arrived from her teaching job in town. But his mind is in a parking lot in Austin, Texas, in the fall of 2009, and he is being stabbed in a bizarre, drunken altercation with a man he had never met before they went out drinking that night.

The man had earlier stormed out of the crew cab pick up that had served as their chariot for Austin hedonism and threatened to smash up a car belonging to Manker’s friend. When they arrive at the vehicle, headlights fall on bashed windows and slashed tires.

Manker spots the man who did the damage materializing from the shadows, threatening his friend, and six years after he was discharged under other-than-honorable conditions, Manker’s Marine training awakens. With his buddy held at weapon point near the trunk, he makes his way around the front. Now, he’s acting it out in his living room, crouching low, sliding across broken glass, pushing against time and tension. The man notices and attacks Manker, who lets him in close, thinking the guy has a gun.

It’s a Ka-Bar knife.

The traditional weapon of the Marine Corps finds former Marine flesh again and again, 10 times in total—in his ribcage, along his arms, across his face. The blade enters and retracts, enters and retracts, pulling cloth and flesh and blood with each motion, and striking the jugular in the back of Manker’s neck. Manker falls on the assailant, pinning him, but he can feel the weight of the blood soaking into his clothes. Reaching back, he finds his neck a fountain.

He’s naked in the ambulance now, under a stack of blankets to fight off the chill of shock, desperately answering the paramedic’s basic questions—“Tyson, where are you from?”—and struggling to stay conscious.

“I know for a fact that I was fighting it,” Manker says. “And I know that if I would’ve gone to sleep, I’d have died. I guarantee it.”

He awoke in the hospital after surgery with 27 staples in his head, hundreds of stitches, his jugular lasered together and a priest in the room. He had flatlined twice.

Tyson Manker did not die in that vicious attack in Texas, but a part of him did. The part that had accrued psychological and emotional wounds, later diagnosed as PTSD, during the Invasion of Iraq; the part that suffered even more after being discharged as a so-called “bad paper veteran,” stripped of his uniforms, his non-commissioned officer rating, his Marine Corps family, his identity and his honor. As his final tour concluded Manker indicated on military assessment forms that he saw friends, civilians and enemy combatants killed and harbored feelings of hopelessness, isolation and malaise, but he was never referred for a follow up or additional treatment. When he returned stateside Manker was tormented, and he turned destructive after his discharge, sliding further and further into depression and eventually contemplating suicide.

That Manker died in Texas, and the former Marine acting it all out in the living room of his childhood home was born, baptized in liters of his own blood.

◊◊◊

Manker made headlines two weeks before my trip to meet with him. He is the face of a class action lawsuit filed in Connecticut by Yale’s Veteran’s Legal Services Clinic alleging bias against veterans with PTSD by the Naval Discharge Review Board. The suit claims that the board, which has the power to upgrade a veteran’s discharge status, systemically refuses to do so for veterans with PTSD.

There are six different types of discharges. Uncharacterized discharge is the least well-known; a recruit who washes out of basic training receives this and for all intents and purposes has never served in the military. The other discharges are honorable, general under honorable conditions, other than honorable, bad conduct discharge and dishonorable discharge—the last two requiring court martial. Any discharge under other than desirable conditions are “bad paper discharges.”

Kristofer Goldsmith, founder of High Ground Veterans Advocacy and assistant director for policy and government relations at Vietnam Veterans of America, received his general discharge from the Army in 2007, the result of a suicide attempt that was interpreted as misconduct because the former sergeant missed formation as he lay in a hospital bed. Common causes of bad paper discharge include drug use and DUIs—sometimes as attempts to self-medicate for PTSD and traumatic brain injury—and, for veterans serving during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, being gay or being accused of being gay.

Manker in his childhood bedroom. B. David Zarley

Tying all of these bad paper veterans is what they lost and how they lost it. Bad paper veterans are stripped of their G.I. Bills—“the single most important tool for propelling your life forward and out of stagnation” post service, Goldsmith says—as well as signing bonuses and other financial remunerations.

“Keep in mind, most people who serve in the enlisted ranks have only a high school education,” Goldsmith adds. “And you don’t belong in their hometown in your early twenties with just a high school education. People say all these great things about vets, but if you’ve been training to do nothing but shoot, move and communicate in active combat, there are not a lot of great job prospects for you.”

Manker considers the financial losses trivial relative to the lack of support. Bad paper veterans face barriers to access crucial VA services, especially mental health and medical benefits. They’re forced to undergo a “characterization of discharge” process, to confirm that their discharge was not dishonorable. Manker was misinformed about this bureaucratic hurdle, and took more than a decade to get access to mental health care. Last June, the VA extended mental health benefits to bad paper vets for 90 days. In March, the House budget bill included a provision which would require the VA to offer mental health screenings and care to any veteran who has served 100 days on active duty, even if discharged under other than honorable conditions.

Slowly but surely, legislation has been tilting in favor of the bad paper vets.

“Last Congress, I worked with Tyson and other veterans to pass a bill that is now law—the Fairness for Veterans Act—that has allowed DOD panels that review discharges to consider service-related injuries like PTSD or a mental health disability that may have led to the alleged misconduct,” Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat for Hawaii and major in the Army National Guard, wrote via email to A Beautiful Perspective. “This is a critical step toward ensuring veterans with service-related mental health conditions get the care and services they need and deserve.”

Discharged under other than honorable conditions for being caught doing illegal drugs, Manker says his fellow Marines turned on him. He became a loser, a “shitbird,” a disgrace to the Marine Corps. Of all the things taken from him, this was the worst: his honor.

“Every bad paper veteran is fucking hurtin‘, man,” Manker says. “It doesn’t matter if, like me, you get the VA benefits and compensation. It all boils down to that one thing, the ultimate issue: You have no honor. And for people that volunteer to serve, I mean, if patriotism is even remotely one of the reasons, to then turn around and, after they’ve done all these things and they’re hurting anyway, and slap them down and say they have no honor—that’s why 15 years later, with a family and a job, you find yourself in rehab.”

“They were brainwashing us. Point blank. They were programming us.” Tyson Manker

The lawsuit is Manker’s first offensive. He’s aiming to tear down the entire current structure.

“If it was up to me, we’d scratch the entire discharge system the way it is now,” Manker says. It makes little sense, he believes, to follow rules and regulations drawn up in a time on conscription. Every member of the military has now volunteered to be there, and barring court martial, their honor should not be in question.

The current discharge system—used by all services under the Department of Defense (DOD) —is designed to identify individual nuances of every service member’s discharge situation, and reduce the risk of inequity to the servicemember that could result from a more general classification approach,” Lieutenant Christina Sears, a news desk officer with the Navy Office of Information, wrote in response to questions from A Beautiful Perspective.

Manker’s ultimate goal includes a sweeping presidential pardon, much like the one issued by Jimmy Carter to draft dodgers, which would wipe out the scarlet letter attached to bad paper vets’ discharges, essentially making all honorable except those who were court martialed. Manker believes it would be “the just thing to do.”

According to VA estimates, there are roughly 500,000 bad paper veterans across the armed forces. The Discharge Review Boards, which hear appeals to upgrade discharge statuses, were meant to be able to fix mistakes made during combat, when officers may make discharges under duress. But the Navy’s low upgrade rate, with 85% of applicants with PTSD being denied—and the similarly stingy rates shown by the other boards pre-2014—emphasize that this corrective power may not be utilized frequently.

“It can essentially be done by a cabal of officers who just don’t like a person,” Goldsmith says of bad paper discharges, using an honorable-but-gay discharge as an example. Much as it does for victims of sexual trauma, the military’s own chain of command can obfuscate and, in the worst cases, like an officer’s friends determining said officer’s guilt in a rape case, corrupt any form of justice.

The Army and Air Force review boards, spurred by guidelines issued in 2014 in response to another Yale lawsuit, have dramatically lowered their denial rate for applicants seeking to upgrade their discharge. However, the Navy, which has administrative direction over the Marines, has not, more regularly adhering to the officer’s original decisions, which Manker chalks up to an incredibly strong culture of command—a ship must be run tight, after all.

“The NDRB follows the guidance outlined in Secretary of the Navy Instruction (SECNAVINST 5420.174D), and foundationally weighs both the documentation associated with administrative separation procedures and the respective commanding officer’s decision in their review of all discharge petitions,” Sears wrote when asked if the NRDB too often defers to the officer’s original discharge decisions. As official records are considered under the presumption of regularity, i.e., they are correct until proven otherwise, the burden of proof falls upon the veterans.

They can also personally appear before the NDRB reviewing panel. According to Sears, in-person cases average about 19 months. Cases without an appearance move faster, due to simpler logistics.

◊◊◊

Manker is kneeling on the floor of his childhood bedroom, its angled ceiling and walls covered with sports memorabilia, as he begins checking the bubble of his mortar. He’s gun one, the best in the unit, and all of the other mortars will key off of his shots. He needs to be perfect.

This is how the war manifests itself in Manker: He is in a state of near-perpetual motion, humming with a vespine energy that explodes out of the hive into standing, pacing and full-on pantomime when he gets excited. He has a constant drip of caffeine, a coffee cup almost always on hand, and pulls regularly from two different vaping devices—one nicotine, the other a THC oil. He drives fast and in silence, stealing quiet moments with the flat roar of the road to shed stress.

Expletives pepper his conversation like tracer rounds, varietals of fuck whistling white-hot past the ears, hard words made all the more charming and uncanny for his mellifluous, drop-o-honey drawl, which calls to mind Raylan Givens, Elmore Leonard’s holler-dwelling U.S. Deputy Marshall as portrayed by Timothy Olyphant on Justified. Like Olyphant, Manker is handsomely intense, tall and athletically built, his stubble run through by a long crescent scar that originates near the corner of his mouth, climbs his cheek, passes his ear and disappears into his hair, where it continues up along the parietal bone. It’s the most visible remnant of Austin.

Manker did not grow up with dreams of becoming a Marine. He wanted to be a college baseball pitcher. He had lost his license senior year for an alcohol arrest, and the local Marine recruiter who had been wearing his dress blues in the school cafeteria offered to pick him up when Manker had to cancel the appointment.

He signed his papers December 3,1999, at which point he was a poolee officially committed to the Marine Corps. Manker says he scored high enough on his Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery to have his pick of jobs.

“My recruiters had two main pieces of advice,” Manker says. “Their two pieces of advice were, don’t go infantry. And don’t go to Twentynine Palms. Which I ended up doing both.”

“If it was up to me, we'd scratch the entire discharge system the way it is now.” Tyson Manker

Infantry grunts are a group apart from the Marine Corps as a whole—the toughest and craziest of the bunch, the first ones into battle. The service is essentially split between the infantry and the POGs, people other than grunts. “Why would I join the military?” Manker says. “To be a Marine! Oh, you mean I’m going to go cook now? Fuck that, give me a machine gun or something, man!”

Manker completed his School of Infantry training at Camp Pendleton, a fact which causes his voice to swell with pride to this day. He then finished advanced weapon training to be a mortarman in a weapons company. Training complete, he was stationed at Twentynine Palms. There, in the Mojave desert, was forged the hyper-masculine, dehumanizing attitude required of a Marine to kill and survive in a war zone.

“It was brutal,” Manker says of life at Twentynine. “It was never fun, it was never pleasant. It was a dog-eat-dog, rough and tumble world where any type of weakness was just absolutely belittled. Y’know, like, ‘you fucking pussy,’ just in the harshest way.”

Everything, down to the physical training, was designed to do two things: harden the grunt and dehumanize any POG. Out in the high desert, Manker and his fellow Marines became weapons of war.

After removing the literal matter of McIntosh, he stepped aside and burst into a crying jag, the only time he cried while deployed.

This is where he learned the culture that saved his life in Iraq and turned its back on him when he came home. It is a culture that needs to be tempered and mitigated when veterans return, because its true home is a warzone. It is a culture that can cause a veteran to act recklessly, that turns an impossibly tight brotherhood into a crab bucket when one seemingly breaks ranks and becomes undeserving. And it was all necessary, part of the true cost of war.

“If you’re gonna unleash your citizens on another country to destroy them, you pretty much want to have the most craziest, most volatile, non-giving-a-shit kind of people to do that,” Manker says.

What were they making out there?, I ask him.

“They were brainwashing us,” Manker says. “Point blank. They were programming us.”

◊◊◊

The pressure was unbearable.

Then-Corporal Manker had been interrogated by a professional interrogator, a plain clothes officer of the United States Marine Corps Criminal Investigation Division (CID) without warning or counsel. He says he was grilled relentlessly, eventually moved to the officer’s office, where he was threatened with 50 years at Fort Leavenworth for all the crimes he would be charged with if he did not admit to his drug use. Manker stuck to his innocence, knowing he had pissed clean, so the officer took him to a booking room and began rolling his prints.

One finger hits the ink and the paper, see-sawing back and forth until the topography of his  fingertips is defined, a geography as threatening and real as any battlefield map.

A second finger hits the ink, then the paper.

A third finger hits the ink, then the paper.

Manker panics, pulls away from the table hands in the surrender position and agrees to confess. He signs the only piece of evidence offered, or needed, for his other-than-honorable discharge—a document that now cannot be located—and is stripped of his non-commissioned officer rank and busted down to lance corporal, docked half a month’s pay, and remanded to the base for 45 days of extra duty. He is banned from reenlisting, his punishment meted out with no lawyer present.

He knows now he could have demanded a court martial, should have demanded a court martial. The due process might have found his confession coerced, the lack of physical evidence too much to drum him out of the service. But PTSD-stricken in his early twenties, with no knowledge of the law and the threat of 50 years in military prison hanging over his head, he accepts the discharge. This moment would later inspire him to join law school.

While all of the traumas he suffered—his PTSD, his discharge, his stabbing—are connected in a formative quilt of pain, it is his bad paper status that he considers the most searing blow of all. He left after his remand stripped of his identity, most of his uniforms laying in a crumpled heap in a barrack at the Marine base in Twentynine Palms, California.

In 2009 Manker returned to community college for his Associate's Degree, followed by a bachelor's and a Juris Doctor. In November 2014, he was accepted as a fully barred lawyer in the state of Illinois. Tyson Manker

The events leading up to Manker’s signed confession can be traced back to Iraq. While he suffered no physical wounds in the country, the stress of the high adrenaline environment, combined, as Army veteran and advocate Goldsmith characterized it, with the uniquely traumatizing experience of being in an invading force and the untimely death of a close friend, led to Manker’s PTSD.

After Baghdad was turned over to the Army, Manker was posted in the Iraqi city of Karbala. While there, Navy hospitalman Joshua McIntosh, a friend of his, was killed by an accidental discharge of a 9mm into his head. Manker was tasked with cleaning out the Humvee where he had watched his friend die. After removing the literal matter of McIntosh, he stepped aside and burst into a crying jag, the only time he cried while deployed.

A month before returning stateside, he filled out his required Post-Deployment Health Assessment. The forms, a copy of which has been viewed by A Beautiful Perspective, reveal in tiny, X-marked bubbles, the data of war. Manker indicates that he saw friends, foes and civilians killed while in Iraq. He admits to feeling in direct danger of being killed, to finding little pleasure or interest in doing things and to suffering feelings of being down and hopeless in the two weeks prior to the assessment. He checks yes to having an experience “so frightening, horrible, or upsetting” that he has suffered nightmares and unwanted thoughts about it that put him constantly on edge. He was exposed to pesticides, jet fuel, smoke from burning oil, trash, and feces, excessive vibrations—each mortar shot is felt more than heard—and at one point needed to wear a Nuclear Biological Chemical hazmat suit for 21 straight days.

Three days after turning in his assessment, Hospital Corpsman Leo Raya signed off on it, recommending no medical referrals, claiming no exposure was reported, and having a face-to-face outtake meeting with Manker, a meeting Manker said never happens. Two other Marines who served with him also say they had no outtake interview. PTSD had slipped past the measures meant to catch it.

The morning after Manker returned to Twentynine Palms from Iraq, he received a Red Cross message and called home, where his mother told him his father had left the family during his deployment. Manker was devastated.

He was granted early leave back to Illinois, and spent the night before his return at a Motel 6 in Twentynine Palms, where he and three of his fellow Marines unwound and partied with methamphetamines and marijuana. The next morning, he left for home. Another of these three Marines would inform on Manker to the brass, leading to his being called before CID and his interrogation, his theatrical fingerprinting and confession.

The ostracized and depressed Manker who emerged from the service struggled for years. He moved back in with his mother and attended community college, feeling constantly ashamed that she, rather than the government, was footing the bill. He dropped out and enrolled in the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Orlando, Florida, eventually landing a job in the Dallas area. In Texas he hit rock bottom, contemplating suicide, and one night in October he joined his friend for a night out in Austin.

◊◊◊

Tyson Manker is in a classroom of Lincoln Land Community College’s Jacksonville campus. Dressed like Tiger Woods on Sunday in a red performance top and black slacks, he leads his business law night class.

After his stabbing, Manker realized he lacked the legal language to both detail what had happened to him in the military and to change it, for himself and fellow veterans. With the love and help of his mother, who provided the support crucial to his recovery, Manker clawed his way back to life. He returned to LLCC in 2009 for his Associate’s Degree, followed by a bachelor’s and a Juris Doctor. In November 2014, he was accepted as a fully barred lawyer in the state of Illinois.

However, it was his involvement in a 2016 political campaign, that he credits for helping to pull him completely from his funk. If Tyson Manker was reborn in Texas, he was re-ignited at a Bernie Sanders rally.

At a Sanders event at Drake University in June 2015, Manker mentioned that he was a Marine during the Q&A session. Sanders walked around the podium and shook Manker’s hand, the memory of which still gives him goosebumps. Following the rally, Sanders found Manker again, and did something so simple, yet so meaningful: He thanked him for serving.

“For me, personally, Bernie Sanders is the first personal representative of the federal government to thank me for my service,” Manker says. “That was huge.”

Manker would put his passion into action, founding Veterans for Bernie. He became a fixture at Sanders’ campaign stops, and at a military themed event at Gettysburg College, Manker got the opportunity to tell Sanders his story in a private “clutch” before the rally.

“Tulsi [Gabbard] comes and sits by me and says, ‘Would you feel comfortable telling your story when we go out there?’ I said, whatever we gotta do, you know?” Manker remembers.

There Manker shared his story as a bad paper veteran publicly for the first time.

“It all boils down to that one thing, the ultimate issue: You have no honor.”

“Tyson is committed to continuing to serve, and has proven his resilience by overcoming incredible odds to fight for fellow veterans who have suffered through adversity as he has,” Rep. Gabbard wrote. “He provides his personal perspective and a strong voice as he advocates for improving veterans’ care and services, opposing counterproductive regime-change wars, and promoting peace.”

His work on the Sanders campaign helped to restore the confidence that, two years later, would allow him to be the face of Yale’s class action suit. Manker now has a new job, as staff attorney with Veterans Education Success, a nonprofit in D.C. whose mission is to protect and defend the G.I. Bill, and moved to the District in June.

◊◊◊

There’s a family in Kansas of a bad paper veteran killed by cops one Fourth of July, Manker tells the vets—mainly Vietnam and Gulf War-era II—sitting around him at their group session, and they had to buy the flag for his coffin themselves.

Those veterans and their families, they are why Manker went to law school, why Manker and Yale filed the suit, why Manker wants to makes sure that veterans get the chance to avail themselves to the educational opportunities that they earned and need for life after the military. The fight is no longer about him; he will get his upgrade as part of the conditions of the lawsuit if he and Yale prevail, which he is certain they will. It is about the dozens of people reaching out to him since news of the suit broke.  

“Talking to all the families and the bad paper vets, we literally tell each other the same story,” Manker says. “Every conversation goes exactly the same. The person on the other end of line, they’ll tell a story, and I’ll be like holy motherfucker, that’s exactly what happened to me, or vice versa.”

It’s a story Manker cannot bear to let go on.

“Now, we’re gonna change the fucking system,” Manker says. He fully intends on one day being President, or Secretary of Defense, and changing not only the system, but the culture. It is a wild, daring goal to accomplish, the kind Marines were made for.

“Why are we doing this? We’re doing this to save fucking lives,” Manker says. “That’s why we’re doing this.”

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