How a Black Veteran is Changing the U.S. Air Force's Discharge Upgrade Process

Written by

Richard Brookshire


November 4, 2023

For years, the Air Force has given out a disproportionate share of bad-paper discharges to airmen with PTSD, military sexual trauma, and mental health issues. Martin Johnson, a former F-16 crew chief who deployed to Iraq and later developed PTSD, brought a class action to make the Air Force change its practices and procedures. In September, a federal judge in Connecticut gave preliminary approval to a proposed settlement that will benefit thousands of former airmen.

The Department of the Air Force (DAF) has agreed to review the discharges of thousands of veterans affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”),
Traumatic Brain Injury (“TBI”), or other mental health conditions, or who experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment. The DAF will also implement administrative reforms for individuals who apply to have their discharge statuses upgraded in the future. These reforms follow a settlement reached in the nationwide class action Johnson v. Kendall, brought by Air Force veterans Martin Johnson and Jane Doe.

Under the settlement, the Air Force Discharge Review Board (AFDRB) will automatically reconsider decisions on applications received between September 13, 2015 and the effective date of settlement, in which the AFDRB denied the discharge upgrade requests of veterans who claimed their mental health conditions or sexual assault or sexual harassment experiences caused their characterization of service to be Under Honorable Conditions (General) or Under Other Than Honorable Conditions (UOTHC). The settlement also expands the right to reapply for an upgrade to eligible applicants who were discharged and applied to the AFDRB between September 13, 2006 and September 12, 2015, but received an adverse AFDRB decision.

“I am pleased that the Air Force is taking steps through this settlement to make the AFDRB more accessible to veterans like me who love and have served this country,” said Johnson, who is represented by the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale Law School. “I am glad the Air Force is committed to taking less-than-Honorably discharged veterans’ mental health and trauma seriously.”

The final approval hearing for this settlement will be held on December 4, 2023, and anyone who is part of the class is welcome to join. If class members wish to object to the class, they can do so by filing an objection with the court and voicing their argument in the final approval hearing.

The proposed settlement provides for:  

  • Automatic reconsideration for certain 2015-2023 discharge upgrade decisions by the AFDRB for veterans with PTSD, TBI, or other mental health conditions, or who experienced sexual trauma.
  • Right to reapply to the review board for certain 2006-2015 applicants for veterans with PTSD, TBI, or other mental health conditions, or who experienced sexual trauma.  
  • Revised decisional documents and training procedures at the review board.  
  • Revised notices to new applicants containing information on medical and legal referrals, and other terms.  
  • Establishment of one-year pilot program giving veterans who claim a mental health condition or experience of sexual trauma, but who are deemed not to have submitted sufficient evidence of the condition or experience, an opportunity to supplement the record.  
  • Creation of a universal teleconference personal appearance program and an AFDRB telephone line for inquiries.

For more information the settlement, see or contact the Yale Veterans Legal Services Clinic at

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