February 3, 2011 | by Chris Johnson
Lawmakers seek to ensure gay troops have VA benefits

A Wisconsin lawmaker and other U.S. House members are calling on Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki to ensure troops discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are eligible for veterans benefits.

In letters to the Pentagon and to the Department of Veterans Affairs –  both dated Feb. 3 – Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) and other lawmakers urge administration officials to devise a way to ensure that separated troops can receive veterans benefits — if their discharge was characterized as something other than “honorable.”

Besides Moore, other signers include the four openly gay members of Congress — Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and David Cicilline (D-R.I.) — as well as 28 additional House members.

In the letter to Gates, the lawmakers note that service members separated under ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” may not have received “honorable” discharges. Some discharged troops may have received a “general” or “other than honorable” discharge, the lawmakers write, and those discharged under the prior regulatory ban could have received a “dishonorable” discharge. The letter states that these designations could impair these service members’ ability to receive veterans benefits.

“We urge you to ensure that there is in place a timely and fair mechanism for providing consistent resolutions to post-repeal claims by those who believe their discharge characterization under DADT and its predecessors were undeserved,” the letter states. ”Many may request changes to allow them access to a range of earned benefits or services through the VA or DoD and your Department needs to be thoroughly and appropriately prepared.”

The letter notes that former service members seeking to change the designation of their discharge can petition the Service Boards for the Correction of Military Records or Service Discharge Review Boards for redress. Still, the lawmakers write that the process for these petitions can be lengthy and can lead to disparate outcomes.

In the letter to Shinseki, lawmakers ask the secretary to “study and implement” new procedures to make easier the process by which service members can seek to have benefits restored — even if they believe their discharge characterization was inappropriate.

“We believe it is prudent that you begin planning to ensure that this process is made available,” the letter states. ”We urge you to put in place mechanisms (including education of VA employees and outreach plans for those who may benefit from such a process) to make full use of this authority to speed relief for those who may qualify once repeal is implemented.”

Benefits that are available to former service members through the Department of Veterans Affairs include certain health care services, compensation for survivors of certain servicemembers and veterans, disability payments for veterans, education benefits and home financing assistance.

Neither the Defense Department nor the Department of Veterans Affairs responded on short notice to the Blade’s request to comment on the letters.

Download a copy of the letter to Gates here and a copy of the letter to Shinseki here.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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