Credit: Stephanie Rudig

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“It is none of anyone’s business and should never be on a discharge certificate,” says Rochelle Bobroff, director of Lawyers Serving Warriors, a pro bono legal services program for veterans. “If we can remove any mention of sexuality, that is a victory.”

Bobroff is talking about the homosexual characterization that appears on some gay veterans’ discharge papers. Between 1993 and 2011, about 13,000 troops were discharged from the military for violating “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Tens of thousands more have been expelled because of their sexual orientation since World War II.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact size of D.C.’s gay veteran population. The Veterans Benefits Administration defines “veteran” as a person who served on active military, naval, or air service duty who was discharged or released under honorable conditions, and estimates that 2 percent of the overall veteran community in the U.S. currently identifies as LGBTQ.  (As of 2016 some National Guard members have veteran status, but no additional retirement benefits.)

With a population of about 30,000 veterans in D.C., that puts around 600 LGBTQ veterans within city limits. But to the federal government, if a service member was dishonorably discharged, they aren’t counted. 

The Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs, established in 2001 to help D.C.’s growing veteran population find gainful employment and process medical claims, defines a veteran more broadly, incorporating more people. “Any person that has served in the armed forces” is eligible for MOVA programs and policies, according to director Elliott Tommingo. The office encourages other government offices, local and federal, to remove the question, “Are you a veteran?” and replace it with, “Have you ever served in the United States Armed Forces?”  

Sheila Alexander-Reid, director of LGBTQ Affairs for D.C., says it’s hard to quantify an exact number of LGBTQ veterans, older ones in particular, because they learned to distrust the government. 

“Once a veteran is dishonorably discharged, they really aren’t keeping up to date with policy changes,” says Bobroff. 

That makes it challenging to get the word out about discharge clinics in D.C. It’s no simple matter to overturn a dishonorable discharge—it takes a lot of time and legal help—but MOVA works with Lawyers Serving Warriors to ease the burden of obtaining legal assistance by providing discharge upgrade clinics to District veterans. Individuals can meet with pro bono attorneys provided by LSW to determine the viability of their cases.

About 250 veterans in D.C. have applied to upgrade their discharges, according to MOVA. 102 of those cases came through the LSW clinics themselves. About 45 percent of all cases have made it to a military review board. Though this service is available to all veterans seeking discharge upgrades, LGBTQ service members were disproportionately affected by wrongful discharges under the prohibitive policies.

Military discharges are broken down into characterizations ranging from honorable to dishonorable, with several other types in between. Anything below a fully honorable discharge can be detrimental to service members.

When military service concludes, everyone receives the requisite paperwork, called the DD-214. The certificate, which is used to verify military service and awards, contains few items of personal information, but for those who were expelled for being gay, the reason for separation reads “homosexual.”

LSW is part of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, which has an overall mission of helping veterans and active duty personnel get “the benefits to which they are entitled because of disabilities resulting from their military service to our country.”  

NVLSP is actively working to help service members upgrade their discharges and remove sexual orientation from the narrative, replacing it with “secretarial authority.” The term is used to differentiate separation from retirement or the end of a service contract. But even if a discharge is upgraded, the reason for separation can remain.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, all branches of the military consider service members to have a strong case for a discharge upgrade if they can show that the discharge was connected to specific categories. These include mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, military sexual trauma, and sexual orientation.  

But the federal government doesn’t overturn these discharge characterizations automatically. The service member must gather evidence and military records to submit to a military review board, and a legal brief must be filed in many cases. It can be an extremely difficult process to navigate, especially for older and low income veterans. It can take six months to two years to receive a decision. 

Prior to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” if a service member was even seen romantically with a member of the same sex, they were at risk for expulsion. 

Bobroff describes a recent case where a pro bono partner at LSW filed a brief seeking a discharge upgrade at the Army Board for Correction of Military Records on behalf of a woman who served in the Army as a Multichannel Communications Equipment Operator from 1981 to 1985, stationed in Germany, Texas, and Georgia. 

She attained the rank of sergeant and was awarded multiple Army Achievement Medals, a Good Conduct Medal, and the Sharpshooter marksmanship badge. After a report that she kissed a female soldier, she was demoted and discharged “because of homosexuality” under other than honorable conditions. 

The board recognized that the laws regarding discharge for homosexuality have changed and concluded that current standards should be “applied to previously-separated Soldiers as a matter of equity.” The veteran received a discharge upgrade to an honorable discharge, a change in the reason for separation to Secretarial Authority, and a reinstatement to her rank as sergeant.

“Not only was she given an unfavorable discharge, but she was also reduced in rank and had no access to benefits for most of her life,” says Bobroff. “Finally, in 2017, she had her discharge upgraded to honorable and a reinstatement of rank on her DD-214.” 

Service members who leave with a discharge characterization that is less than honorable face serious hurdles. Employers are well aware of the DD-214 and will ask to see a discharge certificate. There is a common understanding of what a dishonorable discharge means. Many employment services and shelters are only available to veterans with an honorable discharge, including programs funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. 

“It makes everything harder, and it is demeaning to one’s self-esteem. It contributes to the downward spiral many veterans face,” says Bobroff. “Including homelessness, and ultimately suicide.”

D.C.’s next discharge upgrade clinic is scheduled for June 12 at the Law Office of Morgan Lewis and Bockius, by appointment or walk-in. Call Lawyers Serving Warriors at (202) 265-8305, ext. 152.