A new lawsuit filed over the halved separation pay given to some U.S. service members discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is raising questions about why the Defense Department hasn’t taken action to resolve the issue.
Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of New Mexico filed a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims over administration policy cutting in half the severance pay that discharged troops who serve for at least six years in the armed forces would normally receive if they were separated for a reason other than homosexual conduct.
The policy was implemented in 1991, two years before Congress enacted the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statute, and could be changed by implementing new regulations without action from lawmakers or the courts.
Joshua Block, staff attorney for the ACLU’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender project, said his organization filed the class action lawsuit, known as Collins v. United States, as a result of this severance pay inequity.
“Basically, if you’re discharged under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ [and serve for at least six years], under the policy there’s virtually no way you can qualify for full separation pay,” Block said.
The issue only affects service members separated under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” who received honorable discharges and who have served for at least six years because only under those conditions do troops qualify for severance pay.
Further, because of the statute of limitations, the lawsuit would only affect service members who’ve been discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” within the last six years.
Block said the litigation was brought on behalf of all service members involuntarily discharged in the past six years and estimated that at least 100 discharged service members will qualify as part of the class of plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
The lead plaintiff in the litigation is Richard Collins, a former staff sergeant who was in the Air Force for nine years before he was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“After nine years of honorable service, it’s not fair that I should be deprived of the same benefits given to other dedicated service members who are adjusting to civilian life,” Collins said in a statement.
Another discharged service member who was affected by the pay inequity is Mike Almy, a gay former Air Force communications officer who testified earlier this year before the Senate about being discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2006.
“I think it’s absolutely ridiculous,” Almy said. “It’s pouring salt on the wound. ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ is horrendous enough as it is already. And then, when gays are thrown out the door, they’re even discriminated against once again in the severance pay that they receive.”
Almy said he received separation pay of $40,000 upon his discharge from the Air Force when he would otherwise have been entitled to $80,000.
The lawsuit was filed after the ACLU engaged with the Defense Department in November 2009 to change the policy in efforts that were ultimately unsuccessful. Correspondence had continued until as recently as August, when the ACLU threatened to sue the Pentagon over the lack of action.
Block said he’s hopeful the Pentagon would drop the policy as a result of the lawsuit and pay discharged troops they compensation they would normally receive.
“From our perspective, the litigation shouldn’t have been necessary in the first place, so we obviously hope that the government will do the right thing and pay these people the separation pay that they earned,” he said.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said SLDN and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force identified the issue more than a year ago as something that the administration could resolve with a policy change.
“In this case, [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates has the authority to stop this practice, and he should,” Sarvis said. “Not only should they stop it, we’ll also be seeking — as we have in the past — restitution on their back pay.”
Although the lawsuit has been filed, Sarvis noted “litigation is always protracted” and said the lawsuit could take years to resolve. Consequently, Sarvis said SLDN plans to continue pressing Gates to change the policy administratively and was set this week to meet with Pentagon officials to discuss the matter.
But why does the adminstration continue the policy when President Obama has said he wants to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the issue could be resolved with a stroke of a pen?
Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokesperson, said in a statement that department policy authorizes half separation payments to members who are “not fully qualified to continue to serve” and who are being involuntarily separated under honorable conditions.
“Currently, members being discharged for [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] … receive half separation pay, because the law says they are not qualified to continue in service,” she added.
Almy said he has “no idea” why the Pentagon continues this policy and said the rationale for upholding the policy is similarly unknown to others.
“From the personnel people that I’ve been able to talk to at the Pentagon, no one really knows what the reason for that was,” Almy said.
Block also said he’s unsure why the adminstration hasn’t changed this policy as he noted the administration has a stated goal of wanting to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” through legislative action.
“They have to get that through Congress, and we understand they’re working on that, but this was a regulation that was passed before ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ even came into existence,” Block said. “The administration can get rid of it anytime it wants without needing congressional approval to do so.”