U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Charles Rangel (D-NY) have joined forces with LGBT veterans to craft the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, a bill that would help LGBT veterans who were discharged because of their orientation clear their records. Currently, an estimated 114,000 veterans who were dishonorably discharged because of their sexual orientation between the end of World War II and the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell are eligible to have their discharges rendered honorable and their benefits restored.
On a conference call today, Pocan -- who is co-chair of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus -- said that when he and Rangel first announced a plan for the bill in June, they were "cautiously optimistic that we could receive the support of a good number of colleagues. But I think I speak for Congressman Rangel and myself that we didn't anticipate that we'd receive the kind of strong support that we've received from [House] members all over the country."
Currently the bill has 102 co-sponsors from both parties and was introduced on to the House floor Thursday. Under its tenets, veterans would not only be eligible for health and retirement benefits, but the appeal process for having the terms of their discharge changed would be simpler. The current process is reportedly a bureaucratic nightmare, with no standardized set of documents required or formal procedures in place, which means that veterans can have wildly different experiences with getting their discharges upgraded. Many are forced to hire attorneys to negotiate the thicket of legal obstacles and hurdles currently in place.
Pocan said that the bill aims to create a "timely, consistent and transparent process" by which veterans can review their records and become eligible for an honorable discharge. The change can have a real impact on a veteran's life, he said, given that the conditions of one's discharge can have very real consequences.
"In many states, a dishonorable discharge is treated as a felony," he said, which can lead to "grave difficulties in finding civilian employment and depending on the discharge received, service members can be blocked from voting, unemployment benefits, participating in the GI bill" or receiving benefits like health care, retirement benefits and the right to a military funeral as well as burial rights in military cemeteries.
Two gay veterans joined the conference call: Danny Ingram, the National President of American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER) and Former U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant David Hall. Both men were discharged from the armed forces because of their sexual orientation. Both said that the process to have one's discharge reviewed, even in the wake of the repeal of DADT, is like a maze.
Ward was able to secure an honorable discharge, but because he was kicked out of the military for homosexual conduct, he was still not allowed to ever work in the military again. He said that when he went back to try to join the Air Force Reserves after the repeal of DADT, "It's just having to explain to everyone and go through the paperwork and show them. 'Why were you kicked out? Why are you going back in?'"
"Even during the physical," Ward said, "'Well, what was your discharge?' It seems like everywhere, you have to put why you were discharged."
The new process under Restore Honor would expunge all mention of sexual orientation from veterans' paperwork in hopes that their cases can be judged on their own merits.
"Once people in the military see the groundswell of support that the Congress has to try and right a wrong that has been committed," said Rangel, "I'm certain that they will find ways to mitigate the damage that has been done to the reputations of the dedicated men and women who served their nation so well."
Rangel is optimistic that the issue of LGBT veterans' rights is a bipartisan one, and that even the gridlocked, Republican-led House of Representatives will pass the bill into law.
"I think we'll wave the flag a little bit and play 'The Star Spangled Banner,'" the New York congressman predicted, "but I really don't see any partisanship as relates to this. When it comes to the military, I think that's one of the few areas where that barrier is broken down."
[image of lesbian soldier via Shutterstock.com]