Hawaii’s Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz teamed up with Republican Sens. Joni Ernst and Todd Young to reintroduce legislation that would grant honorable discharge status to veterans who were kicked out of the military for their sexual orientation.
Service members who leave the military with anything other than an honorable discharge are often ineligible for many veterans’ benefits, and may struggle looking for work as dishonorable discharges often suggest to employers a history of crime or unreliability. In some states, it prevents them from voting.
“Tens of thousands of gay and lesbian veterans were unjustly discharged from the military, then denied the benefits and honorable service records that are rightfully theirs,” Schatz said in a press release Monday. “This bill ensures every veteran receives what they deserve.”
The U.S. military has had a long and complicated history with LGBTQ service members, with gay troops serving since the American Revolution. America’s first openly gay mayor Harvey Milk had been a Navy diver and famously recruited Gilbert Baker, a gay Army veteran, to design the now famous rainbow Pride Flag.
The senators reintroduced the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, which previously died in committee, on the anniversary of the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. That was an attempt at compromise adopted by the Pentagon in the 1990s to allow gay service members to serve so long as they never pursued romantic or sexual relationships while serving and never discussed their sexual orientation with fellow troops.
“As we mark 10 years since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, we must continue working to right the wrongs caused by past discriminatory policy,” said Schatz.
Congress voted to overturn that policy in part at the urging of military commanders who said that the policy was costing them qualified troops, in particular highly specialized intelligence and linguistic specialists who were hard to recruit and train to replace.
On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs also announced that it would begin extending many benefits to service members under DADT in the 1990s and 2000s discharge status.
The bill would build on previous legislation that allows LGBTQ veterans to appeal their dishonorable discharge. But the press release from Schatz’s office added that many of these veterans are still unaware they can request to have their records changed or initiate a review.
The new legislation would require the Department of Defense to reach out to veterans discharged for their orientation about correcting their records. It also would require each military branch to conduct a historical review of its policies and create an official record that former members could draw on to change the characterization of their discharge.
Companion legislation in the House of Representatives was introduced by Wisconsin Democratic Congressman Mark Pocan and has more than 60 co-sponsors.
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Kevin Knodell reported on the military and veterans for Civil Beat as a corps member for Report For America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover underreported topics.