An estimated 114,000 members of the service were discharged because of sexual orientation between World War II and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in September of 2011. Many of those who suffered that humiliation are now seniors; according to the most recent census, there are more than 12.4 million veterans age 65 and older.
Depending on where and when they lived, those who were less-than-honorably discharged suffered various repercussions beyond the primal ones of shame and shunning. Some were treated as felons, precluded from voting and serving on juries. Many were discriminated against when applying for jobs and housing. All were denied the recognition and honors they might have earned for bravery or good conduct while serving.
And importantly, all those discharged were denied the right to collect VA and military benefits.
Benefits Long Denied
Such benefits — which may include disability compensation, housing allowances and loans, life insurance, moving expenses, education assistance, vocational rehabilitation, burial benefits, survivors benefits, and more — account for nearly 2/3 of overall military compensation, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
This has special resonance for many older veterans, who may qualify for some programs and benefits specifically offered to ease the expenses of long-term care, including:
- Aid and Assistance — an increased monthly pension amount for those who require daily help, are bedridden, have limited eyesight, or are nursing home residents,
- Housebound Benefits — an increased pension amount for those confined to the immediate premises because of a permanent disability, and
- Geriatric and Long-Term Care — delivered at home, at a VA medical center, or at a community facility.
But those veterans first face another battle: getting an upgrade or changing the reason for the discharge as noted on their official military documents.
Paperwork That Can Haunt
When service members retire, leave, or are discharged from any branch of the Armed Services, the U.S. Department of Defense issues a document, DD-214, verifying their military service record during both active and reserve duty. It lists awards and medals, highest rank or rate and pay grade, combat or overseas service, and various branch-specific specialties and qualifications held, along with the training and schools the individual completed.
DD-214 also includes a blank for “Character of Service.” Possibilities include Honorable or Genera — and the classifications colloquially called “bad paper”: Other Than Honorable (formerly called “Undesirable”), Bad Conduct, or Dishonorable.
In addition, the form specifies a “Narrative Reason for Separation.” Those possibilities include misconduct, disability, personality disorder — and, until recently, “homosexual conduct.” A Narrative Reason of homosexual conduct became “bad paper” for those holding it.
Winning the Freedoms to Ask and to Tell
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a 1993 law barring gay men and lesbians from enlisting or serving openly in the military. By many lights, it was designed to protect soldiers by keeping their sexuality a secret — with the good intentions of curbing “witch hunting” investigations into whether individuals who were serving were gay and stemming harassment of those suspected to be.
In practice, however, many gay service members said Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell forced them deeper into the closet — forcing them to live in dishonesty and isolation while turning deaf ears to homophobic slurs around them. The numbers made a painful statement, too: from 1996 to 2011 when it was repealed, more than 14,000 service members were discharged for the “offense” of being gay.
Equal rights for gays and lesbians took another leap forward in June 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Obergefell v. Hodges, requiring states to license marriages between two people of the same sex and to recognize same-sex marriages validly performed in other states.
The decision also jump-started a change in military policies on health care, insurance and other benefits. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs quickly revised its website to include a cryptic correction: “The Department of Veteran Affairs is dedicated to serving all eligible Service members, Veterans, and their families. It also recognizes the existing diversity within this population, including the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual (LBG) community. (Today’s common parlance is LGBT—which includes transgender individuals.)” But despite some recent directives suggesting policies may be reviewed, the military has yet to lift its ban against transgender service members who were also excluded from the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
Making Bad Paper Good
The popular myth persists that those whose military careers ended with bad paper—or a discharge less than fully Honorable—will be automatically upgraded after six months. That is only a myth, however. Those who want to upgrade a discharge currently must apply and have their applications reviewed by a Discharge Review Board specific to the branch of service in which they served.
According to Department of Defense records, nearly 80% of the requests submitted since 2011 received an upgrade. But the process takes perseverance, patience — and for some, the time and expense of hiring legal help. Most importantly, the entire process can risk reopening old wounds.
There may be help on the horizon. Pending federal legislation, The Restore Honor to Service Members Act directs the Secretary of Defense to review the characterization of service members who were discharged due to sexual orientation. It also proposes a simplified and “timely, consistent and transparent” review, giving hope that those who served honorably could get upgraded records and qualify to receive customary military benefits. And importantly, it would open discharge upgrades for the many thousand service members discharged for their sexual orientation whose challenges would be considered barred by time.
The bill was assigned to a congressional committee on July 15, 2015, which will consider it before possibly sending it on to the House or Senate as a whole.
In the meantime, the process remains cumbersome and bureaucratic — sometimes taking up to a decade
Where to Go for Help
In 2015, Oregon became the first state to pass legislation authorizing a full-time coordinator with the state’s Department of Veteran Affairs focused on helping gay veterans who received less-than-honorable discharges due to sexual orientation to apply for changes in status.
Unless and until other states follow suit, residents in other jurisdictions can turn to the local Veteran Service Organization.
There are also a number of national independent and nonprofit groups dedicated to helping to streamline the process. They include: