WASHINGTON — A group of House Democrats want troops previously dismissed under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law to be able to apply for honorable discharge status, opening the door for them to receive veterans benefits.
In a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates last month, House Armed Services Committee ranking member Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and two colleagues asked Pentagon officials to look into the possibility of allowing those troops to petition the boards of correction to upgrade their status to an honorable discharge, if they received a lesser distinction.
Under Department of Veterans Affairs rules, only troops who receive a dishonorable or bad-conduct discharge are completely barred from receiving veterans benefits. But troops with other-than-honorable dismissals do see some restrictions on their eligibility.
Troops with other-than-honorable dismissals can apply for health care related to service-connected injuries, but the department can deny treatment for health issues that develop later in life. They are not eligible for GI Bill benefits, and may be refused veterans home loans.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of pro-repeal Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said the other-than-honorable dismissals also carry with them a negative stigma when troops apply for civilian jobs.
“For local law enforcement, defense contractor posts, jobs like those, it’s almost an automatic exclusion,” he said. “It can really create problems in terms of future employment.”
Sarvis said the majority of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” dismissals have been honorable discharges, but his group has handled a number of cases where troops were given lesser status simply because of a commander’s negative views on homosexuality.
More than 14,000 troops have been dismissed from the military under the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” law since 1993, although none have been kicked out since November.
In December, Congress passed legislation to repeal the law in the near future, after the Defense Department finalizes a plan to make the change without disrupting current combat operations.
Last week, Pentagon officials offered an overview of that plan, including new diversity and respect training for all troops. They also announced that troops dismissed under the law will be allowed to reapply for admission to the service once the repeal is finalized, provided they still meet enlistment criteria.
However, in a memo to the service chiefs, Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Clifford Stanley wrote that the Department “will not authorize compensation of any type, including retroactive separation pay,” for those previously separated under the law.
Sarvis said his group is working on a proposal to allow all of the troops dismissed under “don’t ask, don’t tell” to appeal their status to the Pentagon. Even troops with honorable status have “homosexual conduct” stamped on their discharge paperwork, which creates privacy headaches when civilian employers ask for evidence of their military experience.
“We need to process these on a uniform and expeditious basis, because we’re looking at a situation where we’ll probably have more than 14,000 people looking to have their records changed,” he said.