WASHINGTON — For the last 18 years, Ross Peterson was reluctant to share his military discharge paperwork with anyone.
“For job interviews, for veterans preference, for veterans benefits, they all want to see your DD-214,” the Army veteran said. “But mine was stamped less-than-honorable with ‘engaged in homosexual acts’ across it. So every time I had to show it, I was outing myself.”
Peterson’s problem isn’t unusual. Gay rights advocates say that before the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law was repealed last year, rules governing what kind of dismissal outed troops received and what information was put on their paperwork was uneven.
Some troops received honorable discharges and clean separation forms. Others received less-than-honorable designations, sometimes simply because of a commander’s bias against gays. Others received confusing or unnecessary commentary about their sexual orientation on their paperwork.
“There was guidance on what officials were supposed to be doing, but we’ve seen plenty of variations to that over the years,” said David McKean, legal director for the advocacy group Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Now, McKean’s group is working to overturn those paperwork problems.
SLDN is working on about 150 cases of veterans looking to get their discharges upgraded or updated, so they can re-enlist, qualify for veterans benefits or simply have “clean” paperwork they can use as proof of their service.
After the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law was repealed in September 2011, Pentagon officials provided new guidance on how dismissed troops could re-enlist. The process included petitioning the military discharge review boards to re-examine discharge orders and decide whether the original decisions were warranted.
Serena Trueman, who was booted out of the Air Force in 2005 under the law, received an honorable discharge but had the reason for separation classified on paperwork as “personality disorder.”
“They actually gave me an option of ‘personality disorder’ or ‘psychological problems’ when they filled out my papers,” she said. “It was easier to give me a quick discharge with those [classifications]. I was pretty upset.”
The honorable designation meant that Trueman had access to her veterans education benefits and VA home loans — veterans with other-than-honorable discharges can’t get them — but she said the “personality disorder” stamp made her reluctant to share her military paperwork with potential employers.
Kulsoom Naqvi, staff attorney for SLDN, said most of the cases staffers are reviewing share characteristics. Some are looking to re-enlist, but many of the veterans involved are just looking to remove the unnecessary information from their files.
Nearly 14,000 troops were dismissed from the military under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, and thousands more were forced out before the law was instituted in 1993.
Not all of those received problematic discharges, McKean said, so officials have no way of knowing how much the record upgrade effort could cost the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments.
“There will be a potential cost anytime someone becomes eligible for a benefit that they were ineligible for before the upgrade,” McKean said. “That said, I don’t think the cost of giving benefits to people who earned them and have been prevented from taking advantage of them should really be part of the calculation.”
The process takes up to a year. Naqvi said veterans can file an appeal on their own, but the legal complexities of the process make it impractical without a lawyer.
She said troops with questionable service records — poor fitness reports, sub-standard performance reviews, administrative punishments — typically won’t get their discharge status changed.
Trueman and Peterson had exemplary service and received favorable rulings from the boards this summer.
For Trueman, the change means she’ll be able to join the Air Force again. For Peterson, it’s a matter of pride.
“That discharge paperwork was a dishonor to my good name and my service,” he said. “When they made the change, I was beside myself with joy. It made me proud of my service again.”