Ahead of Veterans Day, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are promoting legislation aimed at enabling service members who were given dishonorable discharges for being gay to clear their records.
Gay Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), lead sponsors of the Restore Honor to Service Members Act in the U.S. House, promoted the bill at a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday with Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who’s the sponsor of the bill in the Senate.
Pocan said the Pentagon is updating the paperwork for service members who apply following repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the legislation is needed both to streamline the process and to prepare in the event a future administration is not favorable to LGBT troops.
“When they were given a dishonorable discharge, we know that the impact of that is severe,” Pocan said. “The impact can be not getting simple benefits that are afforded to veterans like health care and educational assistance. In some states, a dishonorable discharge means that you can’t vote and there are very severe ramifications for employment and other issues as well.”
According to Pocan, 100,000 service members were discharged for homosexual conduct since World War II, either during “Don’t Ask, Don’t Act” or during the administrative gay ban before the law was enacted. Although most received “honorable” discharges, many, depending on the circumstances, received statuses of “other than honorable,” “general discharge” or “dishonorable.”
An original co-sponsor of the legislation is Rangel, a Korean War veteran who said the legislation would build on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“So, so many people have been victim of prejudice and discrimination against people who are gay, and all we’re asking is correct the record, correct the record,” Rangel said.
Touting the contributions of service members to their country, Schatz said each of them should receive “the honor and benefits they deserve.”
“It is shameful that there are veterans who have not been recognized for their honorable service,” Schatz said. “Discrimination against gay and lesbian service members, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ was a stain on our military history.”
Also present during the news conference was Matt Thorn, interim executive director of the LGBT military group OutServe-SLDN, and David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign.
The lawmakers aren’t alone in waiting to change things. Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton said last month as president she would ensure the paperwork for service members discharged solely for being gay is designated as “honorable.” Vice President Joseph Biden made a similar call for a change at the 2015 Human Rights Campaign dinner in D.C.
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on the legislation. A Pentagon spokesperson said the department doesn’t comment on pending legislation as a matter of practice, but in 2013 the Defense Department told the Washington Blade it sees no need for the bill because “DADT-related applications are being processed effectively.”
Under questioning from the Washington Blade, Pocan said the Pentagon doesn’t automatically change the discharges to “honorable” because of a process to evaluate the circumstances of each service member. About 500 people have applied for the process, but 80 percent of those are supported, Pocan said.
“The contingent part of the bill is that if there are other factors, misbehavior, etc., along with it, then obviously that’s not directly related to their sexual orientation, so they have to go through a process,” Pocan said. “It can’t just be automatic because at least from the ones we’ve seen, at least 20 percent, have had some other contributing factor.”
Asked if he thinks the Pentagon would welcome the legislation, Pocan said he thinks the department would support anything to make the process more streamlined.
Introduced over the summer, the Restore Honor to Service Members Act has 108 co-sponsors in the House and 37 co-sponsors in the Senate. In the House, the bill has three Republican co-sponsors: Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) and Reid Ribble (R-Wis.).
Pointing out House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has said it’s a “new day” with his election, Pocan touted the legislation’s bipartisan support and said he’d have to find out whether the legislation would see any movement under the Republican-controlled Congress.
“We’ll take them at their word,” Pocan said. “Maybe it is a new day and we’ll find some opportunities.”
Asked if he has any opportunity in mind like an amendment to defense spending legislation, Pocan replied, “We’re going try everything we can to try and move forward.”