Congress Owes Gay Veterans the Honorable Discharges They Deserve
While “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is relegated to the history books, its legacy continues to dog many gay veterans who must go through a cumbersome process to obtain the honorable discharge they deserve, but Congress has the power to change that.
It is estimated that nearly 100,000 Americans still alive today were discharged from the military because of no other reason than their sexual orientation. While DADT is no more, a great proportion of those discharged are still barred from receiving the benefits they deserve because, they are not aware they can apply for their “other-than-honorable” discharges, their “general” discharges and their “dishonorable” discharges to be changed.
U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) have introduced legislation called the Restore Honor to Service Members Act that would serve to answer this problem. The legislation would serve to simply the process for veterans who were discharged under DADT so that they can have their records changed. This, in turn, would then allow them to access all the rights and benefits that come with an honorable discharge.
It would also end the problems that not having an honorable discharge can cause. For instance, those who did not receive an honorable discharge might have difficulty finding employment because their discharge could imply to prospective employers that they were forced to leave the army due to bad conduct, making them unattractive prospects.
In some cases, veterans may even be barred from voting because of a dishonorable discharge. That’s because a dishonorable discharge is treated by some states (like Oregon for example) in much the same was as though it were a felony and therefore voting rights are suspended. Those with historical dishonorable discharges due to their sexual orientation may not be aware that they can appeal to have their voting rights restored by having their discharge changed to honorable. Obviously, the Restore Honor to Service Members Act would provide an easy means to end that disenfranchisement while addressing the larger issue.
The legislation would require the Department of Defense to come up with a new transparent and more timely way of handling applications to change discharges of gay former servicemembers. Currently, the process puts the emphasis on servicemembers to contract with a lawyer, to find paperwork they may never have received and to jump over hurdles that may take months if not years to navigate.
The legislation would also refer each case to a military discharge board which would be tasked with assessing the claim. If the board finds that the servicemember received a discharge for no other reason than their sexual orientation, the board would recommend they receive an honorable discharge. The bill also requires that historians within each branch of the military record the testimony of servicemembers expelled over their sexual orientation so as to ensure their voices are on record.
“The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a watershed moment, ending institutionalized discrimination that unjustly targeted gay and lesbian members of the military,” Senator Schatz is quoted as saying. “Yet thousands of former service members still bear the scars of that discrimination, with their military records tarnished with discharges other than honorable and marks on their records that compromise their right to privacy. Many of these brave men and women that served our country are currently barred from benefits that they earned and are entitled to, and in the most egregious cases they are prevented from legally calling themselves a veteran. This needs to be corrected now.”
“LGBT veterans who served and sacrificed in silence during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, as well as those who served before and during ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ in the Gulf War, Iraq, and Afghanistan, deserve to see their service recognized and honored at long last,” said Denny Meyer, national public affairs officer for American Veterans for Equal Rights, the national LGBT veterans service organization. “We endorse and support the efforts by Senators Schatz and Gillibrand and Congressmen Pocan and Rangel to move forward the Restoring Honor to Our Service Members Act, which will accelerate discharge upgrades.”
The legislation also has a counterpart bill introduced in the House by Mark Pocan (D-WI2) and Charles Rangel (D-NY13).
In case you wonder what kind of a difference this legislation might make to LGB servicemembers, Hal Faulkner, 79, who was dying from cancer, carried the burden of an other than honorable discharge with him for his entire life. It was only in his final weeks last year that he received a record change and a formal letter of recognition of his service. Hal Faulkner died just a few weeks later, but his story is a testament to what it means for gay servicemembers to receive the recognition they deserve. Read Hal’s story here.
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