By Craig Roberts

A disgraced Navy veteran rebuilds his life with help from The American Legion.

NOTE: For the sake of confidentiality, the name of this story’s subject is fictitious. The narrative, however, is true.

On the morning of May 22, 1997, Navy Chief Petty Officer Montford Willson had a meltdown. The Navy lifer, a yeoman, had been nabbed for giving away “basket leave” to a few sailors – an under-the-table method of beating the system, whereby paperwork authorizing leave is allowed to languish unprocessed in a yeoman’s “in” basket while personnel are away for a few days.

If sailors return as promised, the paperwork gets tossed; no leave is charged and no one’s the wiser. But if they are delayed, the paperwork is processed to cover their absence.

Though, things didn’t go according to plan for Willson. An unnamed informant caught on to the ploy and not only reported Willson but also an officer who alledgedly gave Willson permission to fudge the records. While the officer got a slap on the wrist, Willson was demoted to E5 – petty officer second class. He was not happy.

The incident only dug Willson deeper into dire straits. A psychiatric evaluation a few months earlier had found him suffering from a major depressive disorder – and understandably so. His marriage was falling apart. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, went blind in one eye and was having debilitating headaches. And now, he’d been punished severely for “failure to properly maintain his command’s leave log.” This was rock bottom.

Official Navy records of the May 22 episode relate that, in a morning phone call to his psychiatrist, Willson threatened to “blow up” his unit and “shoot everyone” in his command. He also said that he felt suicidal and had a gun in the trunk of his car.

In certain circumstances, violating the doctor-patient confidentiality rule is warranted. This was one of them. The psychiatrist tipped off the Navy and, seven months later, 36-year-old Willson received an “under other than honorable conditions” discharge (commonly referred to as OTH – other than honorable) – after serving more than 18 years.

An OTH discharge isn’t as detrimental as a dishonorable or poor conduct dismissal. But an OTH is far from graduating with honors; it’s enough to deny you most VA benefits. This was especially problematic for Monty Willson, a newly minted civilian with MS and depression disorder who needed serious health-care assistance.

About two years after his special court martial, Monty filed an appeal to the Navy to re-evaluate his case. Maybe they would reconsider, Monty thought, and grant him a general discharge. It would be better than the damning OTH.

So Monty wrote to the Naval Discharge Review Board (NDRB) in Washington about having been an honorable sailor until that unfortunate morning when he went ballistic. He pointed to his good service record – one so good, he argued, that he’d been made a chief petty officer. He also told them about his MS, depression, headaches and difficult divorce. Monty thought the Navy might understand the manic morning episode that cost him his Navy career, veterans benefits, dignity and reputation. He explained that he was reformend, becoming a community-minded citizen in his new Midwestern hometown and member of the local Optimist Club.

The NDRB considered Monty’s plea for a year, finally replying in the summer of 1999. The answer was in cold military-speak, but translated roughly to: “Sorry for your tough circumstances, but you acted in a manner that required decisive action from the Navy.”

The NDRB, however, was not entirely chilly in its decision that the “discharge was proper.” There was hinting of a possible reversal in the ruling’s closing paragraphs. In rather complicated terms, it asked him to refile his appeal when he obtained “evidence of continuing educational pursuits (transcripts, diplomas, degrees, vocational-technical certificates), a verifiable employment record (Letter of Recommendation from an employer), documentation of community service (letter from the activity/community group), certification of non-involving with civil authorities (police records check) and proof of not using drugs (detoxification certificate, AA meeting attendance or letter documenting participation in the program) in order for consideration for clemency based on post-service conduct.”

Then, at the very end of the decision was a flash of hope: “The applicant is encouraged to continue with his pursuits and is reminded that he is eligible for a personal appearance hearing, provided the application is received within 15 years from the date of discharge.”

Encouraged, Monty carried on. Over the subsequent decade, he earned two college degrees and became a Bible school minister and Cub Scout leader. He obtained three management training certificates, including one from the Small Business Administration, and started his own enterprise.

Monty became heavily involved in MS Society volunteer work, writing and speaking in support of others with multiple sclerosis. He published articles and a book and, as a Freemason, achieved the exalted rank of Master Mason. He remarried, too.

By the end of 2009, Monty had amassed evidence of his achievements plus character reference letters, including one from his local police chief, and was ready to, once again, face the NDRB. On Feb. 1, 2010, after learning that The American Legion helps with such appeals, Monty called David J. Michael, Jr., the Legion’s military review boards representative in Washington. Michael, a retired Navy master chief petty officer, was intrigued and touched by Monty’s story.

Over the next few months, Michael reviewed Monty’s service records and began gathering evidence to support a discharge-upgrade plea, making suggestions for the submission of additional documentation. In the spring, Dave submitted the package to the NDRB and got word in July that its members were willing to see Monty in a personal appearance hearing later in the year. The documentation assembly continued until Sept. 29, when Monty – with Michael at his side – sat before five members of the NDRB.

In a letter dated Oct. 19, 2010, the board informed Monty that his OTH discharge, the dishonor that had disgraced him and withheld his veterans benefits for more than a decade, had been upgraded to honorable. Michael emailed his congratulations.

Monty Willson is an individual who, under a tremendous amount of strain, acted out dramatically and alarmingly. He acknowledges his wrongdoing and expresses remorse for it. In a personal statement that accompanied all the official and unofficial records of his post-service good deeds and good conduct, Monty said: “I fully understand that my discharge due to my misconduct was proper and fair. I have had a little over 12 years to reflect back on my misconduct.

“Not a day goes by that I’ve wished I would have done things differently and not done some things that I did. I mean, I was a CPO for God’s sake, and I should have known better to begin with. One does not obtain the rank of CPO by chance.

“I cannot change my past, but I can change my present and future. Am I sorry for what I’ve said and done that led up to my misconduct and subsequent discharge? Yes I am.”

In the end, Monty’s actions spoke louder than his words. His charity to his friends, neighbors, family and community conveyed a valuable truth. Through a sympathetic ear at the Navy, and a little help from a true friend at The American Legion, the true character of former Chief Petty Officer Montford Willson has been not just recognized, but certified.

It was a familiar position for The American Legion. The organization has long advocated for processes that allow servicemembers to clear their names, playing a key role in convincing Congress to create discharge review boards in 1944 and panels to correct military records in 1946. Since then, the Legion’s Military Review Boards Unit has provided counsel, guidance and representation to veterans seeking to upgrade their discharges or correct their service records; in 2010, the unit logged 42 discharge upgrades and 85 service-record corrections.

Not long ago, Dave Michael contacted Monty to see how he was doing. “So nice to hear from you,” came the reply. “Please know that my wife and I are doing well. Since my discharge was upgraded, my lord, it is so wonderful. I live five miles from the VA Hospital and they are servicing all of my medical needs and medicine with minimal out-of-pocket co-pays. They mail me my medicine. It is so awesome.

“I have applied for ‘service related disability’ (as you suggested). The American Legion rep at the VA Hospital has been a great help, too. He complimented me on my attention to detail when I took him my paperwork. He told me that in all his years that he has been working, helping people file their disability claims, mine was the best prepared he has ever seen.”

Monty went on to tell Dave of the publication of his second book and his plans, should he ever become “rich and famous through my writing” to create a statue in tribute to young mothers awaiting their sailor husbands’ return home.

Despite it all, Monty Willson’s still a Navy man at heart.