Pentagon to review cases of veterans denied honorable discharges during ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’
Stars and Stripes September 20, 2023
WASHINGTON — Thousands of LGBTQ veterans kicked out of the military for their sexuality under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy could see their honor restored under a new initiative that the Pentagon unveiled Wednesday.
“Over the past decade, we’ve tried to make it easier for service members discharged based on their sexual orientation to obtain corrective relief,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement. “In the coming weeks, we will be initiating new outreach campaigns to encourage all service members and veterans who believe they have suffered an error or injustice to seek correction to their military records.”
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was signed into law in 1993 by President Bill Clinton to allow gay men and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they did not make their sexual orientation public. Those who chose to disclose were discharged.
But the policy was repealed 12 years ago by Congress after forcing about 14,000 service members out of the military during the 17 years that it was in place from 1994 to 2011. Those troops were given other-than-honorable discharges, making them ineligible for many VA benefits, including health care, disability compensation, home loans and burial benefits.
More than 80% of 1,683 veterans who applied for discharge upgrades or records corrections have been granted, according to data provided on the Defense Department’s website. Between 1980 and 1993, along with the operating years of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, nearly 33,000 service members received a discharge for “homosexual conduct.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced two years ago that VA adjudicators, who decide whether to approve veterans’ claims for benefits, would no longer consider veterans ineligible because of their discharges for sexual orientation or gender identity. The department would award a veteran his or her benefits unless the person’s military record shows another reason that he or she doesn’t qualify.
For the first time, the Pentagon will begin reviewing the military records of veterans discharged because of their sexual orientation but have not applied, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said. The Defense Department will start with those discharged during the time of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The department also will seek to collaborate with the VA and the National Archives, which might have digitized records to help with the review process.
“When we find indications that someone’s less-than-honorable discharge was due to their sexual orientation, we’ll put their name forward to their respective military department’s review board for consideration. As we do this, we will be laser-focused on preserving the privacy and dignity of each veteran,” Hicks said.
During the review process the department will look at about 2,000 veterans who received an other-than-honorable discharge, a defense official said. The review has not started and when it will occur is still being determined.
“This is yet another step we’re taking to make sure we do right by those who served honorably … despite being forced to hide who they are and who they love, while serving the country they love. Even if the department didn’t see it then, we see it now,” Hicks said.
The Pentagon is also working to add new resources to defense.gov, including podcasts and webinars to explain how the process works and encourage veterans to apply.