Hal Faulkner, 79, is dying of an aggressive form of cancer. When he found out that he didn’t have long left to live, he contacted his family to ask them if they could help him with one last wish: to have his “other than honorable” discharge from the military changed.
Mr Faulkner proudly served three years in the Marines, ascending through the ranks at a blistering pace. That is, before someone with whom he had spent some off-duty time told his commanding officer Mr Faulkner is gay. His commanding officer took the matter seriously and, in 1956 and at just the age of 22, Mr Faulkner was discharged with the word “homosexual” scrawled on his papers –something that posed a significant barrier to finding work.
Nevertheless, Mr. Faulkner went on to have what is described in reports as a “lucrative” and successful career in sales. He opened up about his sexuality to his family in 2005 after attending a wedding with his partner of some 20 years; still, he kept the discharge a secret.
Michelle Clark, a niece of Faulkner, is quoted as saying: “I always knew he served in the Marines, but no one in the family knew of the [other than desirable] discharge. He’s been carrying this societal shame with him all these years. We as a family had no idea the pain he had inside of him.”
Then in 2013, the military’s ban on openly gay service personnel, known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), was repealed. As part of the repeal legislation, those who had been given an “other than honorable” discharge for no other reason than their homosexuality could apply to have their record changed to “honorable.”
Not long after the repeal went into force, Mr Faulkner was diagnosed with terminal cancer in his lungs, liver and adrenal glands.
That was when Mr Faulkner reached out to his family and asked that they in turn contact organizations that could have the discharge amended. The problem was Mr Faulkner, now 79, had been given only months to live. Given that this process can take up to a year, there was a question of whether the change could be done in time.
Fortunately, with LGBT-military rights group OutServe at the helm of the campaign, the Marines acted within just months to ensure the change was made, and last Friday in Florida, a small group of serving officers presented Mr Faulkner with his honorable discharge as well as a red Marine cap.
The New York Times has a full write-up of this entire story, which I highly recommend you read, but here is a touching segment:
“I don’t have much longer to live,” he said, “but I shall always remember it.” He thanked Anne. He thanked his nieces. He thanked the Marines. He even thanked people in the room whom he had no reason to thank.
Someone went off to mix him a Scotch-and-soda, and he finally gave in. He sobbed.
“It’s often said that a man doesn’t cry,” he said. “I am a Marine and I am a man. So please forgive me.”
It’s estimated that around 114,000 troops were given negative discharges for no other reason than their being gay — and many of them who are alive today may not know that they can have their record amended or that they can access veteran benefits. Resources on how to tackle this problem can be found at a number of different websites, including OutServe.
There is also the fact that while gay servicemembers are now welcomed by the military, trans servicemembers are still banned under different rules to DADT and must stay in the closet or risk being discharged. Trans servicemembers may also feel they cannot seek help for issues related to their gender dysphoria in case the military finds out about their gender identity, creating real and significant psychological harm. Trans servicemembers can find resources and help here.
Until those rules are also changed, there will continue to be people like Mr Faulkner who will live their lives with the burden of injustice weighing on their shoulders. Thankfully, Mr Faulkner has seen some small justice and can now go to his rest knowing his country really did value his service.
Image credit: Thinkstock.