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Push for Honorable Discharge Status for Military Gays

  • Published: 2011-07-02 (Revised/Updated 2015-03-18) : Author: The Law Offices of Goodson & Piemonte, P.C. : Contact: -
  • Synopsis: Learn how some in Congress are fighting to restore access to benefits for gay former service members.

Main Document

The Push for Honorable Discharge Status for Those Expelled Under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell".

Thousands of gay service members were discharged under the recently repealed "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

For many of them, this meant an other than honorable discharge and the denial of a range of veterans' benefits. Learn more about how some in Congress are fighting to restore access to these benefits for gay former service members.

For years, homosexuality was grounds for discharge from the armed services of the United States. In 1993, President Clinton initiated the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" ("DADT") policy as a compromise that required gay soldiers to be discreet about their sexuality or face being thrown out of the military. DADT ruled the military policy on homosexuality for 17 years.

But, on December 22, President Obama signed into law a bill that will allow gay men and women to serve openly in uniform for the first time in U.S. History. After certification and the passage of a built-in 60-day waiting period, the law goes into effect, meaning the military will be forced to begin addressing a host of logistical concerns, from determining how to educate troops on the new policy to dealing with housing assignments for gay troops. Perhaps chief among these concerns is deciding how to handle those ousted from the military under DADT. Some lawmakers are now calling for a consistent mechanism that will allow discharged gay service members to attain the honorable discharge status some of them were denied by DADT, along with the numerous veterans' benefits accompanying that designation.

What Advocates Want

All told, more than 13,000 servicemen and servicewomen were dismissed under DADT. Although the discharges of many of these veterans were characterized as honorable, some service members received general or other than honorable discharges. Some dismissals under DADT were even characterized as dishonorable discharges.

Now, a group of legislators led by Wisconsin Democratic Congresswoman Gwen Moore are asking top Pentagon and Veterans Affairs officials to develop an effective process by which gay soldiers dismissed under DADT can secure all the advantages of an honorable discharge. In early February, Representative Moore, along with 32 other House members, sent letters to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki and Defense Secretary Robert Gates urging the adoption of a speedier, fairer system for those seeking review of a discharge designation received pursuant to DADT.

Currently, former service members discharged for any reason who wish to challenge their discharge characterization may pursue a remedy before either one of the military Service Discharge Review Boards or the Service Boards for the Correction of Military Records. However, Moore and her colleagues believe that the standard process will be inadequate for those seeking redress for an unfair discharge characterization received under DADT. In addition to being a lengthy undertaking, reviews before either the Service Boards for the Correction of Military Records or the Service Discharge Review Boards can lead to different results for similarly situated former service members.

Why Honorable Discharges Matter

It is no surprise that the characterization of discharges under DADT is a sensitive issue to so many lawmakers: having a general, other than honorable, or dishonorable discharge designation can have a huge effect on individual constituents. Generally speaking, eligibility for Veterans Affairs benefits requires an honorable discharge. Honorably discharged former service members are entitled to a wide range of health care services for life; while veterans with other than honorable discharges can receive medical services for injuries suffered in connection with their military duty, the Department of Veterans Affairs may decline treatment for conditions that arise later.

In addition, educational benefits like the GI bill are not available for those without an honorable discharge, and Veterans Affairs home financing loan assistance can be denied based on an other than honorable discharge. Beyond having an effect on a range of benefits provided through the Department of Veterans Affairs, discharge characterizations can also influence a former service member's ability to get a job, including his or her ability to reenter the military.

The Future

It is unclear at this point how top government officials will respond to the letters and the growing push to extend benefits for those left out in the cold by DADT. The representatives behind the letters emphasized that any new review process must take into account conduct beyond sexual orientation that could otherwise merit discharge designations that were not honorable. But, for a growing number in Congress, those discharged solely because of DADT or the gay-targeting policies that preceded it deserve to be granted the full range of veterans' benefits they earned through service.

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