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Bill Introduced to Upgrade Discharges for Gay Vets

by
Danny Ingram
President, American
Veterans For Equal Rights

Atlanta, GA (Jul 25, 2013); U.S. Representatives Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Charlie Rangel (D-NY) today introduced legislation, along with 102 bipartisan cosponsors, to ensure that Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual veterans who were discharged from the military because of their sexual orientation receive the honor and recognition they deserve. The "Restore Honor to Service Members Act" would instill the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" into law and support the Department of Defense's efforts to correct the unfairly tarnished military records of our brave service members. Since World War II to the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" in 2011, approximately 114,000 service members were discharged because of their sexual orientation. Congressman Pocan is one of 6 openly gay members of the House. Congressman Rangel is a US Army veteran of the Korean War.

"For too long, tens of thousands of men and women who selflessly risked their lives for our country have lived with the dishonorable records that came from the unjust `Don't Ask Don't Tell' policy," said Pocan, co-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus. "But the support we have received for our legislation demonstrates the country's strong desire to close the book on `Don't Ask Don't Tell' and rightfully recognize the service of all of our courageous service members. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to move forward with this effort and restore honor to all of our brave veterans."

"As an American, a Congressman, and a Korean War Veteran, I was proud to join my colleagues in ending the discriminatory law that previously barred open gay and lesbian soldiers from serving their country," said Rangel. "Now is the time to finish the job and ensure that all those who served honorably are recognized for their Honorable service regardless of their sexual orientation."

The "Restore Honor to Service Members Act" is about more than upgrading a piece of paper. Every form of discharge previously given out prior to the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" carries with it consequences that can follow a service member for his or her entire life. While the characterization of the discharges varied, many members received discharges that were classified as "other than honorable" or "dishonorable," particularly prior to the implementation of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy in 1993. In many states, a dishonorable discharge is treated as a felony, and service members receiving a "general discharge," a lesser offense, can encounter grave difficulties acquiring civilian employment. All were barred from reenlisting in the military. Depending on the discharge received, service members may also be blocked from voting, unemployment benefits, participating in the GI Bill or receiving veteran benefits such as health care, VA disability, and ceremonial burial rights at military cemeteries.

The "Restore Honor to Service Members Act," turns the current broad review policy outlined in a memo from the Under Secretary of Defense into clear and settled law. It ensures all services members who were previously discharged because of their sexual orientation receive a timely, consistent and transparent review of their records so that gay veterans who served honorably have their records rightfully upgraded to honorable. It also removes any indication of a service member's sexual orientation from the record, so they are not automatically "outed" to those accessing their record and protects against future discrimination by decriminalizing consensual relations between same sex couples, bringing military law in line with Supreme Court rulings.

Statements of Support for the Restore Honor to Service Members Act:

As President of American Veterans For Equal Rights (AVER), I stated that we "wholeheartedly endorse and support the Restore Honor to Service Members Act."  I participated in a press teleconference today in support of the legislation, in which I said, "Many thousands of LGBT service members were dishonorably discharged from WWII to 1994, prior to DADT, and thousands more under the DADT policy. Many elderly veterans urgently need access to the VA care which they are currently denied due to their discharges for being gay. The current process of discharge upgrades is extremely cumbersome and bureaucratic and can take over a decade in many cases."

"The repeal of `Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was a tremendous first step in achieving equality in our nation's Armed Forces. It is important that we continue to address the discrimination that LGBT veterans face by updating their service records to reflect the reality of their service" said HRC Legislative Director Allison Herwitt. "We are thankful that Reps. Pocan (D-WI) and Rangel (D-NY) have addressed this issue with the "Restore Honor to Service Members Act.'"

"The September 2011 repeal of 'Don't ask, don't tell' created a brighter future for our LGBT service members, allowing them to serve openly without fear of harsh professional repercussions. But this victory for LGBT service members' future cannot undo the injuries of the past. Now, SWAN thanks U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan and Charlie Rangel for seeking to do just that, " said Anu Bhagwati, Service Women's Action Network executive director and former Marine Corps captain. "The 'Restore Honor to Service Members Act' closes the loop on this discriminatory policy: wiping out dishonorable characterizations tied to sexual orientation and restoring honor to those from whom it was unjustly taken."

Note: It is unclear at this time what the Restore Honor Act would do, if anything, for Transgender veterans discharged from the military. AVER has sent an inquiry to Congressman Pocan on this issue.

AVER is the nation's LGBT Veterans' Service Organization, serving military personnel and veterans since 1990. www.aver.us

  2013 Gay Military Signal, AVER