WASHINGTON – While gay servicemen can now openly serve in the military, veterans deported purely for their sexual orientation under previous policies still face barriers to accessing benefits due to “less than honorable” dismissals .
Some states are pushing to enact laws this year to provide immediate recourse to these veterans, rather than waiting for federal laws to change.
A bill in New Jersey is expected to be enacted as early as next week. This would give veterans expelled from the military solely on the basis of their sexual orientation access to state benefits. He would also order the state-run Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to streamline the upgrade process at the federal level.
“Under the Trump administration, nothing has happened … in fact, we have backed down over the past four years on many equal rights issues,” New Jersey State Senator Vin Gopal said. in an interview in mid-March. That’s why he, along with lawmakers in Colorado and Connecticut, are pushing for change.
More than 100,000 servicemen were expelled from the military between World War II and the 2011 repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy that prohibited gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military, because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, according to a 2020 Harvard Law School report.
A “less than honorable” discharge – an informal term for all discharge that is not honorable – can bar gay servicemen from state and federal benefits.
Complicated forms, processing delays, and bureaucratic paperwork make it difficult for veterans to get upgraded to their release status under the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs. Upgrading an exit status can take years.
New York, Rhode Island, and Nevada have all enacted legislation in recent years that restored the state’s military benefits.
Hanna Tripp, policy advisor for America’s Minority Veterans, applauded the state’s efforts.
“Remove the barriers for these people to get the benefits they might need, especially emergency benefits like housing, such as [Supportive Services for Veteran Families] funding or access to health care is huge, ”she said.
Separated servicemen without honorable discharge may have difficulty finding a job, returning to school, or obtaining a mortgage.
Under a “general with honorable” discharge, one of the most common administrative discharges, a Veteran is eligible for all benefits except the GI Bill. A notch below, it is a discharge “other than honorable”, the most severe administrative discharge, which excludes you from all the advantages.
“Another than honorable is terrible. This means you can’t get regular social and other benefits – housing allowances, unemployment benefits are all tied to at least one general, ”Rochelle Bobroff, pro bono program director at Lawyers Serving Warriors , a project of the National Veterans Legal Services Program that provides veterans with free legal aid for various disability claims.
Mike Mudd, an Air Force veteran, received a “non-honorable” discharge in June 1989 after his roommate declared him gay.
Mudd, 53, had served for less than two years when told to pack up and leave Homestead Air Force Base near Miami. He was given $ 91 for a bus ticket back to Louisville, Ky.
Miami’s thriving gay community, where he was sent after basic training, helped him realize he was gay, and he stepped out during his time there. But it came at a high price.
“Because of that one thing you can’t control, now you’re not qualified. It destroys you, ”said Mudd, now a Kentucky realtor, after working for 25 years as a paramedic.
His release prevented him from tapping into VA benefits. Mudd was also denied a VA home loan because he was under the two-year service mark to be eligible.
In 2004, he requested a hearing to improve his discharge. After about a year, he had it changed to a new document, but the characterization of the discharge, or the reason he was released, remained “homosexual conduct” on his original DD-214 form.
“It was a relief to get my honorable discharge, but it still weighs on me because the reason that is still my discharge,” he said.
Now that he’s legal to openly serve in the military, he can apply to remove the “same-sex conduct” label from his DD-214, something he didn’t know was possible until his interview with Stars and Stripes.
It took decades after leaving the military for Navy veteran Dave Lara to discover he could improve his DD-214, thanks to a veteran advocacy group.
Lara received a general on honorable terms after a member of the service exposed him in 1969. The discharge form called him “unfit for any kind of military service, ever,” Lara said today. ‘hui 73 years old. “And it hurt, because I was in combat, because I had to save so many lives.”
After being homeless and battling the symptoms of PTSD, including suicidal thoughts, he struggled to find a job. Lara eventually found success in the telecommunications industry and retired in 2003, but her fired status continued to take a toll on her sanity.
“The self-esteem that I struggled with was 80% because I always had this dump. And it haunted me my whole life until I fixed it five years ago, ”said Lara, who lives in Los Angeles.
With the help of a local veterans services organization and a volunteer lawyer, his DD-214 was reissued and he received an honorable discharge. The process took about four years.
When he received the upgrade in 2019, he said he cried alone in his room for five hours of relief. He had this severe discharge “always on me, always telling me that I was of no value”.
Lara urged other veterans to find support throughout the complex process. “You can’t do it alone,” he said.
Jennifer Dane, executive director of the Modern Military Association of America, said her organization has seen more veterans seek help with landfill upgrades, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic.
When COVID-19 hit, “I had so many veterans come over and say, ‘I want to use my VA health care because I lost my health care,” she said. declared.
Yet upgrading a landfill can take anywhere from six months to three or four years. The pandemic has caused even longer delays, according to veterans advocates.
On the flip side, Bobroff said some veterans were reluctant to jump into the process and engage with lawyers. They might also not want to focus on a traumatic experience in their life.
“You have to engage with the military, and these veterans may not want to because it was such a painful and unpleasant time in their lives the way they were treated,” she said. .
Representative Mark Takano, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, introduced legislation earlier this month that would establish a commission to investigate the historical and current effects of discriminatory military policies on LGBTQ servicemen and veterans. .
Takano, the first openly gay Asian person in Congress, said in a statement to Stars and Stripes in mid-March that the commission would provide a roadmap to Congress to “right the injustices.”
“The full extent of the damage caused by anti-LGBTQ military policies is still not known,” Takano said.
“No veteran should face barriers to the care or benefits they have earned.
Takano also urged the Senate to make this issue a priority: “The longer we wait to rectify this injustice, the longer LGBTQ veterans will have to wait to receive their vested benefits.” “
Air Force veteran Mudd and some advocates argue that the current legislation does not go far enough.
Mudd wants the government to automatically change the status of all gay veterans released because of their sexual orientation to honorable, and to end the petitions process. Better awareness and resources would also help.
“You just have to go back and do the right thing and treat people fairly,” he said.
Dave Lara, left, with fellow sailors in Subic Bay, Philippines, 1966.
SUPPLIED BY DAVE LARA