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Honoring Our Heroes

By U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI)

In 1944, at the height of World War II, Melvin Dwork(*) was expelled from the Navy and given an “undesirable discharge” for one simple reason: he was gay. He spent the following decades fighting tirelessly to remove this blot from his record.

I resented that word ‘undesirable,’” said Dwork. “That word really stuck in my craw. To me it was a terrible insult. It had to be righted. It’s really worse than ‘dishonorable.’ I think it was the worst word they could have used.”

Nearly 70 years later, at the age of 89, Dwork finally saw his record cleared. The Navy changed his discharge from “undesirable” to “honorable” in 2011—marking what is believed to be the first time the Pentagon has taken such a step on behalf of a World War II veteran.

Tragically, Dwork’s story is not unique. From 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. Stories like Melvin’s are why I introduced legislation with Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) to ensure that all of our nation’s courageous veterans are treated with the dignity and respect their service commands.

The Restore Honor to Service Members Act, supported by more than 100 bipartisan cosponsors, will guarantee that gay and lesbian veterans who were discharged from the military because of their sexual orientation receive the honor and recognition they deserve. It would instill into law the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and support the Department of Defense’s efforts to correct the unfairly tarnished military records of our brave service members.

Tens of thousands of gay veterans still live with the emotional scars and the practical consequences of our country’s former discriminatory policies. Beyond the humiliation of being forced out of the military, many of these veterans possess records that are tarnished with a range of discharges and designations because of their sexuality.

For these heroes, the Restore Honor to Service Members Act would be far more than just a symbolic recognition of their service. The consequences of a blemished military record can stay with veterans throughout their lives. While the characterization of discharge varied, many service 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.

This classification has tangible, destructive, and demeaning consequences for gay veterans as they build their lives at home. Service members with “less than honorable” discharges often times have difficulties securing civilian employment. They can be prohibited from receiving veterans benefits they’d otherwise be entitled to—such as access to the GI Bill, veteran’s health care, and a military burial. And in certain states, a “dishonorable” discharge is treated as a felony and can strip a veteran of his or her right to vote.

Unfortunately, the process for a veteran to have their record reviewed is often times confusing and inconsistent, discouraging many deserving veterans from pursuing a rightful upgrade of their record. Our legislation will create a timely, consistent and transparent review process so that gay veterans who served honorably have their records justly upgraded to honorable. Our bill will also allow veterans to remove any indication of their sexual orientation, so they are not automatically “outed” to those accessing their record, such as future employers.

Thousands upon thousands of gay veterans have waited far too long for legislation like this. As my friend and co-author Rangel said, "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 repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” ended a shameful chapter in our nation’s history—a chapter this country was undoubtedly ready to close. But there is still work to be done to revoke the damage caused by decades of discriminatory policies towards gay and lesbian service members. While we cannot rewrite history, we can right a great injustice that has stained our nation’s conscience. The Restore Honor to Service Members Act will do just that: it will recognize and restore the honor of those who have served our country with nothing but honor.

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U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan; Second District, Wisconsin:  Congressman Mark Pocan was sworn in as the U.S. Representative for Wisconsin’s second congressional district in 2013 following 14 years in the Wisconsin State Assembly. A small business owner, union member and lifelong advocate for progressive causes, Rep. Pocan is committed to using his unique experience from both the private and public sector to fight for polices that promote job growth and support the families of south central Wisconsin. In Congress, he serves on both the Budget Committee and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and has been appointed an assistant minority whip.  Rep. Pocan has been married to his husband Phil since 2006.

* Editors note: Melvin Dwork's WWII discharge upgrade story may be seen at www.gaymilitarysignal.com/1112Dwork.html

  2013 Gay Military Signal, AVER