A shameful chapter of American history will be closed Tuesday when the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is repealed, and all members of the military will be able to serve their country openly, without hiding who they are. But as we celebrate this milestone, we must also extend justice to servicemembers, like myself, who were discharged honorably prior to the repeal.
Defense Department lawyers are slated to argue in federal court on Thursday that a policy that provides half the normal severance pay to servicemembers honorably discharged because of “homosexuality” is constitutional. This makes no sense.
I was a decorated staff sergeant in the Air Force. I served for nine years. Although I was in a committed relationship with another man — a civilian — I concealed my sexual orientation. That was difficult but, as a military man, I knew rules were rules, so I followed them because my commitment to serve my country was so important to me. My sexual orientation was never an issue during my service.
It was only when civilian co-workers from Clovis Air Force Base in New Mexico saw my boyfriend and I exchange a kiss while stopped at an intersection in our car off-base that my superiors learned of my sexual orientation. Even though I was off-duty and out of uniform, I was involuntarily separated from the military with an honorable discharge. It was not how I wanted to end my time in the Air Force but, seeing no alternative, I didn’t fight it.
Prior to the passage of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 1993, Congress passed a law giving separation pay to servicemembers who are involuntarily discharged after more than six years of service. This pay is critical to ease the transition to civilian life. Finding employment and housing can be tough for anyone, and separation pay has long been a means of making things a little easier for former military personnel.
However, the Defense Department has adopted its own policy, which says those discharged because of “homosexuality” are only entitled to half the separation pay — even if they received an honorable discharge. The Pentagon can lift the policy at any time, but has chosen not to, even after “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been consigned to the dustbin.
I expected to receive approximately $25,000 in full separation pay. It wasn’t until after I was discharged that I realized I would receive only half of that sum, solely because I am gay.
During the past six years, the Defense Department cut in half the separation pay of 142 honorably discharged servicemembers because of “homosexuality.” On average, each of us was penalized approximately $15,000. That may not seem like a lot of money to the Pentagon but, for someone who has just had his military career destroyed, that money makes a big difference.
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, I brought a class-action lawsuit on behalf servicemembers in my situation. Instead of admitting this policy was wrong, the Pentagon has asked to dismiss the case. The government has said we are “not fully qualified for retention” and has compared us to servicemembers who are discharged because of drug abuse or alcoholism.
When President Barack Obama signed the law repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he said of servicemembers: “Our people sacrifice a lot for their country, including their lives. None of them should have to sacrifice their integrity as well.” I wholeheartedly agree. We gave our all in serving this nation. The Pentagon should not give us half in return.
Richard Collins is the lead plaintiff in an ACLU class-action lawsuit challenging the Defense Department’s policy of halving separation pay for servicemembers honorably discharged for “homosexuality.”