Discharged over sexual orientation, military still owes thousands of vets

The U.S. military, which had previously imposed an outright ban on gay troops, subsequently relaxed into a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, still owes thousands of veterans who were discharged due to their sexual orientation benefits they missed out on.

History of the issue: About 114,000 troops were discharged from service due to their sexual orientation, often with a less-than-honorable discharge which deprived them of automatic VA benefits or free VA health care.
* Bob Alexander, a dedicated Air Force serviceman who hid his sexual orientation, contrasted with Stephan Steffanides, who was discharged for his sexuality only two years into his Navy service.
* “Don’t ask, don’t tell”, a policy allowing gay and lesbian troops to serve as long as their sexuality was kept secret was enacted in 1993, but still resulted in approximately 14,000 people being discharged for their sexual orientation during the 17 years it was enforced.

Effects and aftermath: Those discharged over their sexual orientation often faced difficulties in obtaining civilian jobs and social ostracism.
* Discharged servicemen like Steffanides turned to substance abuse and, in some cases, became homeless, with the stigma of other-than-honorable discharge preventing them from marking their military service on job applications.
* Even when the ban on gay and lesbian troops was lifted in 2011, the damage was done for many, with some preferring to stay hidden rather than revisit the traumatic past of their ban-induced discharge.

Efforts for justice: Today, there are initiatives to give these veterans their due.
* Alexander, with the San Francisco-based charity Swords to Plowshares, attempts to help gay veterans with other-than-honorable discharges claim their deserved benefits.
* The Pentagon granted 90% of discharge review board applications, while the VA can “characterize” a veteran’s discharge as honorable for VA health care and most benefits.
* Steffanides was eventually able to access housing, health care, and disability support, and now runs a support group for LGBTQ veterans.

Challenges to outreach: Proactive efforts to reach out to these veterans and inform them of their rights to claim benefits are hampered by political climate and the difficulty of identifying and locating veterans discharged due to their sexual orientation.

View original article on NPR

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