Heinrich Seeks Justice For Service Members Discharged Due To Sexual Orientation

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich

U.S. SENATE News:

  • Restore Honor to Service Members Act Would Help Correct Records of Service Members Discharged Before Repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

WASHINGTON, D.C.U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. is cosponsoring the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, a bill that would help service members discharged solely due to their sexual orientation correct their military records to reflect their honorable service and reinstate the benefits they have earned.

“Doing away with the discriminatory military policy of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ brought us closer to achieving full equality for all Americans. Yet thousands of our heroic gay and lesbian former service members still haven’t received the recognition and benefits they’ve earned,” Heinrich said. “Every service member in New Mexico and across the country has helped protect and enhance our national security. It’s time we do right by them by ensuring their military records reflect that honor.”

The legislation, introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawai‘i, and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would cut existing red tape at the Department of Defense and simplify the process for veterans who were discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” seeking an opportunity to have their records corrected to reflect an honorable discharge and give the service member all rights, privileges and benefits associated with their honorable service.

Since World War II, more than 100,000 Americans are estimated to have been discharged from the military because of their sexual orientation. Those forced out of the military may have left with discharge statuses of “other than honorable,” “general discharge” or “dishonorable,” depending on the circumstances. As a consequence, many of these service members may be disqualified from accessing certain benefits that they earned and are entitled to, such as veterans’ health care and GI bill tuition assistance, and may not be able to claim veteran status. The consequences of a negative discharge status can be far-reaching, preventing some veterans from voting and making it more difficult for them to acquire civilian employment.

Many service members discharged for their sexual orientation after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” went into law in 1993 received “honorable” discharges, but are still at risk of discrimination because the reason for their discharge may indicate their sexual orientation, threatening their privacy when they share their separation paperwork with potential employers or landlords. In addition, they would have received a negative re-enlistment code barring them from reenlisting in the military, which could erroneously imply to potential civilian employers that they were discharged for bad conduct, stifling their employment opportunities.

The current Department of Defense appeal process for service members to change their discharge narrative is onerous and places the burden on the service members to get a lawyer, produce paperwork they do not have or may never have had and navigate cumbersome red tape.  There is also no legal requirement that the process always remain available to service members seeking corrective action.

The Restore Honor to Service Members Act makes the process for restoring a discharge status to honorable permanent law for all who were forced from the military solely because of their sexual orientation. It creates a simplified process for service members to initiate a timely, consistent and transparent review of their discharge characterization to reflect their honorable military service. The bill would also require the removal of any discharge narrative that indicates sexual orientation from a service member’s record.

Representatives Mark Pocan, D-WI, and Charles Rangel, D-NY, introduced a House companion bill in June 2013 where it is pending consideration.

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