Op-ed: LGBT Veterans Deserve Dignity
Several weeks ago, the free hotline at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network rang as it has done every day for nearly 20 years. Before the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" (DADT), we could bet that on the other end would be a service member facing the fear — or the very real possibility — of being discharged simply for who he or she was, a gay or lesbian patriot wanting nothing more than to serve the country they loved.
Thankfully, we don't receive those calls anymore. Instead, however, we hear from service members whose spouses and families are not being treated equally by the military or from those who want to join or rejoin now that DADT has been repealed. About half the time, we also hear from veterans who were discharged for being gay or lesbian, and who are still dealing with the fallout.
On this day, the call was from a gay veteran seeking our help, and we knew after hearing his story that he was a perfect fit for SLDN's post-DADT repeal legal services. He served in the U.S. Navy for 17 years and had an excellent service record with great reviews and no disciplinary history. After hiding his sexual orientation for well over a decade, he came out to a fellow service member whom he trusted. Shortly thereafter, there was an investigation and he was discharged honorably, but with a narrative reason on his discharge paperwork that reads, "homosexual conduct admission."
Since then, as is required by many employers, this veteran who served our country honorably and with integrity, has been asked to provide a copy of his discharge paperwork as a condition of employment. Each time, he has been forced unnecessarily to "out" himself once again in his small town, and he believes this indignity has cost him more than one job opportunity. He called SLDN for help, and we are now assisting him as he applies to have this narrative removed from his service record.
Sadly, this veteran's situation is not unique. As many as 100,000 LGBT veterans discharged since World War II may qualify for such assistance. Since the repeal of DADT, the Department of Defense has issued guidance regarding how to handle applications by veterans separated on the basis of their sexual orientation who want to have their discharge paperwork changed. The guidance expands who is eligible to apply to have their documents reviewed and provides specifics on how these documents may be changed. Unfortunately, however, for a variety of complicated reasons, each of these must be handled one by one — for the time being at least — and SLDN is helping or has already helped almost 150 veterans who are seeking to make changes.
An early success was on behalf of Melvin Dwork, a WWII veteran who served in the Navy and was discharged in 1944 for being gay. Mr. Dwork sought SLDN's assistance in early 2011 to upgrade his discharge paperwork, and it was granted in September 2011. The result was an "honorable" discharge in place of the previous "undesirable," allowing him to qualify for long overdue benefits and with them, in his words, the satisfaction of "righting a wrong" that was nearly 70 years old.
So whether it's about removing a barrier to employment, qualifying for veterans' benefits, or restoring a measure of dignity and honor to their service, SLDN stands ready to assist veterans with making these changes and upgrades.
DAVID McKEAN is the legal director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in Washington, D.C. Veterans can contact the group 24 hours a day at 1-800-538-7418, or may get started with the process by using an online toolkit at www.sldn.org.