Two House Democrats are working to build support for legislation that would streamline the process for veterans to remove the blemish on their discharge papers if they were expelled for being gay and their service wasn’t characterized as honorable.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), one of the six openly LGB members of the U.S. House, and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) are proposing legislation known as the “Restore Honor to Service Members Act,” which would ensure veterans who were discharged for being gay would be designated with an honorable discharge.
In an interview the Washington Blade, Pocan said the bill — which has never before been introduced in Congress — would build off earlier legislative efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and help gay veterans who are unable to receive certain benefits — and rights — with their current discharge papers.
“There are still so many people out there who have served their country honorably, they still don’t have access to the GI bill or receiving veteran’s benefits,” Pocan said. “They still can’t even have a military burial ceremony. They, in some states, can’t vote or get unemployment benefits, so we just need to set up a fair process for these people. There are just too many who’ve served our country so ably and risked their lives, and we owe this to them.”
While “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was instituted in 1993, the military had a policy prior to that time in which it expelled people for being gay. From World War II to the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in 2011, an estimated 114,000 service members were discharged for being gay — more frequently with dishonorable and other than honorable discharges in the period before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
In a statement, Rangel said he wanted to take part in the effort to enact a change in the policy because of his own military service.
“As an American, a congressman, and a Korean War veteran, I was proud to join my colleagues in ending the discriminatory law that previously barred open gay and lesbian soldiers from serving their country,” 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.”
Although a policy currently exists to change the designation on discharges, Pocan said he’s spoken to veterans who find the process cumbersome and are seeking a streamlined process.
“Sometimes they’ll put in, and then a couple months later, they’ll find out they need to submit something else, and a couple months later, submit something else, so they’ve had to get lawyers,” Pocan said. “We’re trying to put all of that up front so that the process will be much easier and more expedited than it currently is.”
Other aspects of the bill, according to Pocan’s office, will require the Pentagon to review the discharge review process and report on its consistency; provide for the collection of oral histories on the discrimination against gay troops; and repeal the still-standing section of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that prohibits sodomy for both straight and gay service members.
Pocan said the bill will be introduced “likely next week” and, in the meantime, he and Rangel are looking to build co-sponsors. The Wisconsin lawmaker said they’re making an “extra effort” to build support among members of the House Armed Services Committee because that panel will likely have jurisdiction over the bill.
Pocan said about 30 House members are interested in being original co-sponsors of the legislation.
Asked about his plan for passing the legislation with Republicans in charge of the House, Pocan was vague about the way forward, but emphasized they’ll be talking with “partners on the outside” and the bill would be a follow-up to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“I’m hoping that since we already have it repealed, that this can gain enough support that Congress can try to lead and get it done so we can put a fair process in place for people to get rid of that old discharge recognition,” Pocan said.
Allison Herwitt, legislative director for the Human Rights Campaign, shared the sentiment that the legislation would build off the successful 2010 effort to repeal the military’s gay ban.
“The repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a tremendous first step in achieving equality in our nation’s armed forces,” Herwitt said. “It is important that we continue to address the discrimination that LGBT veterans face by updating their service records to reflect the reality of their service.”