Gay veterans still seek honorary discharges after being booted from the military under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Military contingent in San Diego LGBT Pride Parade, July 15, 2017
Military contingent in San Diego LGBT Pride Parade, July 15, 2017 Photo: Shutterstock

Eleven years after Barack Obama did away with the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, thousands of vets kicked out under the rule are still “dishonorably” discharged.

The Department of Defense directive, negotiated by President Bill Clinton in 1993 and instituted the following year, prohibited individuals who “demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts” from serving in the U.S. armed forces, while barring the military from discriminating against or harassing closeted service members or applicants.

The policy was as unwieldy and unenforceable as it sounds.

Over 14,000 service members were booted from the U.S. armed forces during the 18 years the policy was on the books. Those discharges deprived gay vets of the same benefits honorably discharged personnel receive, including healthcare, college tuition, VA loans and jobs in both the government and private sector.

Navy vet Amy Lambre told CBS News her discharge and the deprivation of benefits left her feeling “less than honorable.”

“It’s a dark place,” she said. 

When the Obama Administration allowed openly gay applicants and current members to serve in the U.S. military in 2011, those previously discharged under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell were not provided a blanket pardon or upgrade to their discharge status.

“There wasn’t a lot of thought about the people who’d been discharged, who’d gone through hell on this issue,” said Leon Panetta, Obama’s Secretary of Defense when the policy was repealed.

Instead, service members discharged under the policy were entitled to apply for an upgraded discharge status. 

Navy vet Lambre described the process, which she started in 2013, as time-consuming and difficult. “It just got stalled and I didn’t feel like there was any hope for anything,” she said.

Just 1,242 veterans have been granted discharge upgrades over 11 years.

The Defense Department (DOD) claimed service branch review boards “strive to finalize 90% of all cases within 10 months.” 

“The Department has conducted several outreach campaigns to inform all Veterans who believe they have suffered an error or injustice to seek correction to their military records,” the DOD said. “This effort included an individualized letter campaign during the 5th anniversary of the repeal of DADT policy to those who may have been personally impacted.” 

The Veterans Administration acknowledged a “perception that the process could be onerous.”

A new outreach effort from the VA and DOD includes an update to “its web-based tool that provides Veterans with customized, step-by-step instructions on how to request an upgrade to their discharge, based upon their responses to a series of questions,” the Pentagon said.

Marine vet Donnie Ray Allen is one of the lucky few to receive an upgrade, with a recent bump up to “honorable” discharge.

“The witch hunt was always around, no matter what, during those times in the military,” Allen said. “I was so angry and mad at the situation that we were all forced to serve that way.” 

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