U.S. Senators Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), and Todd Young (R-Ind.) have reintroduced the Restore Honor to Service Members Act. The bipartisan legislation corrects the military records of service members discharged solely due to their sexual orientation to reflect their honorable service and reinstate the benefits they earned, building on Senator Schatz’s 2020 National Defense Authorization Act amendment, which turned the Department of Defense’s temporary process for service members to correct their records into permanent law.
The announcement of the legislation came on September 20, the tenth anniversary of the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) military policy that required service members to remain silent about their sexual orientation if it was anything other than heterosexual. Revealing a non-heterosexual orientation, whether it was through voluntary or other methods, for most, resulted in a dishonorable discharge. An estimated 13,000 service members were discharged under the discriminatory policy.
“As we mark 10 years since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, we must continue working to right the wrongs caused by past discriminatory policy,” said Senator Schatz. “Tens of thousands of gay and lesbian veterans were unjustly discharged from the military [and] denied the benefits and honorable service records that are rightfully theirs. This bill ensures every veteran receives what they deserve.”
“Veterans who served our country honorably should receive the benefits they deserve. This bipartisan effort will help veterans correct their military records and ensure they are properly recognized for their sacrifice and service,” said Senator Ernst.
“Addressing the injustices of the past is the right thing to do and will help to ensure all veterans are entitled to the privileges and benefits that they have earned. I’m proud to join my colleagues on both sides of the aisle as we work to restore honor to those who courageously served our nation in the armed forces,” said Senator Young.
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, and as a consequence may be disqualified from accessing benefits they are entitled to and unable to claim veteran status. A negative discharge may also prevent veterans from voting or make it more difficult for them to acquire civilian employment.
Many veterans affected by discriminatory policies such as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell are still unaware they can have their records corrected or initiate a review. In an effort to continue Congress’s work to correct this historic wrong, the Schatz-Ernst-Young legislation would require the Department of Defense to reach out to veterans who faced discrimination because of their sexual orientation about the process for correcting their records, authorize the Department of Veterans Affairs to use the date of a discharge characterization upgrade as the date by which it can determine a former member’s eligibility for accessing time-limited benefits; and require each military branch to execute a historical review of its discriminatory policies, creating an official record that former members could draw on to seek a change in discharge characterization.
In the U.S. House of Representatives Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), has reintroduced a companion bill to the Restore Honor to Service Members Act.
“All service members who proudly served our country deserve the benefits they are entitled to, regardless of their sexual orientation,” Pocan said. “It is past time that Congress and the Department of Defense correct past injustices by restoring benefits to all LGBTQIA+ service members who served our nation honorably.”
President Joe Biden, who served as vice president ten years ago when President Barack Obama originally signed the repeal of DADT into law, issued the following statement of support:
“Ten years ago today, a great injustice was remedied and a tremendous weight was finally lifted off the shoulders of tens of thousands of dedicated American service members,” Biden said in a statement issued by the White House. “It was the right thing to do. And, it showed once again that America is at its best when we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
Following his statement, the Department of Veterans Affairs issued a policy clarification on Monday stating that veterans who were given other than honorable discharges based on non-heterosexual conduct, gender identity or HIV status may be eligible for VA benefits, such as home loan guaranty, compensation and pension, health care, homeless program and/or burial benefits, among others. The department said the clarification offers guidance to VA adjudicators and to veterans “who were affected by previous homophobic and transphobic policies” who “have not applied for a discharge upgrade discharge due to the perception that the process could be onerous.”
Additional supportive legislation from the House comes from Congressman Chris Pappas (D-N.H,), alongside Reps. Mike Levin (D-Calif), Kathleen M. Rice (D-N.Y.), Anthony Brown (D-Md.), and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), have reintroduced the SERVE (Securing the Rights our Veterans Earned) Act to guarantee & protect VA benefits for #LGBTQ+ veterans discharged due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“LGBTQ+ members have served honorably since the creation of our American military forces and yet too many were stripped of their careers and subsequent VA benefits they deserved simply for who they are or who they love,” said Modern Military of America Association Executive Director Jennifer Dane. “The SERVE Act provides an opportunity for our government to acknowledge the long-term impacts of discrimination and finally take steps to honor the service and sacrifice of those affected by it.”
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