Washington, D.C. (MEDIA GENERAL) – An 86-year-old World War II veteran probably never imagined that his decades-old dishonorable discharge could impact the military records of more than 100,000 other service members.
That’s because their discharges all stem from the same scarlet letters: LGBT.
Beyond the issue of honor, many of the men and women dismissed by the armed forces lost their careers, access to VA health care, education benefits, retirement, certain loans, and even the right to vote in some states.
Inspired by Struggle
“I read an article about an 86-year-old who spent 20 years fighting with the Navy to get his WWII dishonorable discharge upgraded to honorable,” recalls Patrick Burns.
Simultaneously outraged and inspired by the elderly veteran’s struggle, Burns, who was working on Capitol Hill as a Brookings Institution fellow for Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), set about crafting the “Restore Honor To Service Members Act” two years ago.
His team wanted to make it “very easy for people — especially people who can’t afford the lawyers and the time to fight these things — to come and get their discharges upgraded,’ explained Burns.
In no time, the office phone started ringing with supporters — many of them colleagues of Rangel in the House and Senate. The measure didn’t pass in that Congress; instead, it floundered in committees chaired by Republicans, who tend to be less supportive of the measure.
Veterans Day Push
But it’s back again in 2015 and getting a boost in both chambers just before Veterans Day.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), the bill’s Senate sponsor, joined Congressmen Charlie Rangel and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) on Thursday to remind lawmakers that approximately 114,000 service members, according to their numbers, were discharged by the military due to sexual orientation.
Schatz insisted, “It’s our job to make sure that every veteran receives the honor and benefits they deserve,” calling it, “shameful that there are veterans who have not been recognized for their honorable service.”
He and others are proposing a streamlined process in the Department of Defense (DOD) to upgrade blatant and questionable past discharges based on sexual orientation, granting them unblemished records and access to full benefits.
Rep. Rangel, the original House sponsor and decorated Korean War veteran, declared, “It’s embarrassing as hell for us to have to explain why it’s taking too long for America and the Congress just to do the right thing.”
Complex Discharge Appeals
‘Restore Honor’ advocates want DOD to dispense with lengthy inquiries tasked with investigating whether a service member was wrongly discharged for being gay prior to 1994. It’s a complex process, since discharge forms before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) rarely explicitly cited sexual orientation as the primary cause for dismissal, making cases difficult to prove.
Discharges could be designated in four ways: dishonorable, other than honorable, general, or honorable.
After DADT passed in the mid-1990s, Burns explains that honorably discharged LGBT service members’ files were marked with a code indicating sexual orientation led to their exit, opening them up to possible discrimination in 37 states where it’s still legal to fire or deny housing to gay people.
Since DOD has a process in place for rectifying past cases of LGBT discharges, opponents of ‘Restore Honor’ argue it’s duplicative and fixes a problem that’s already been patched. Given the largely partisan backing of ‘Restore Honor,’ supporters face an uphill battle to gain cosponsors and force votes in committee.
Burns, no longer working in Congress, stopped by Capitol Hill on Thursday to thank Schatz, Rangel and Pocan for carrying the baton on his veterans bill. Before walking away, Burns shared the story of a phone call that he got from a Korean War veteran kicked out of the military for gay activities.
The 80-something veteran said to Burns, “I hear that Congressman Rangel has a bill that will make my service honorable.” Surprised, Burns told the elderly man, “No, your service was honorable — there’s just a bill that would recognize that.”
Overcome with the possibility of a clean record, the elderly veteran said, “I just want someone to tell me I served honorably.”
The House bill currently has 108 cosponsors — including three Republicans — but is stalled in the Military Personnel subcommittee. Likewise, Schatz’s bill is sitting in the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, with 37 cosponsors. Neither version looks set for a full committee vote soon.