▶ Watch Video: Veterans forced out for being gay fight for benefits
The White House said Thursday the administration will “reevaluate and assess” how the Department of Defense rectifies the less than honorable discharges many LGBTQ veterans received when they were kicked out of the service before and during “don’t ask, don’t tell.” That comes after an investigation by CBS News found many of those kicked out for their sexual orientation are still struggling to get their honorable discharge status.
“It’s concerning, it is very concerning that veterans who were unfairly discharged under the don’t ask, don’t tell have been facing these challenges to upgrade their discharges, denying them benefits they have earned,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday. “It’s something that we definitely are going to look into.”
During the 18 years when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was the law of the land, an estimated 14,000 service members were forced out of the U.S. military, in some cases with discharges that deprived them access to full benefits including VA loan programs, college tuition assistance, health care and some federal jobs.
The discriminatory policy was born of a compromise by President Bill Clinton to allow gay, lesbian and bisexual military personnel to remain in the armed forces as long as they remained closeted. The controversial law was repealed in 2011 under President Barack Obama.
Donnie Ray Allen, a Marine veteran, and Amy Lambre, who served in the Navy, both say the early years of “don’t ask, don’t tell” brought a fresh wave of homophobia to the military. They were both dismissed from duty with less than honorable discharges and say they’ve spent years suffering from the emotional fallout.
“I’m ‘less than’ … less than honorable,” Lambre said, explaining how this discharge changed her sense of self. “It’s a dark place.”
There are official channels that would open doors for those veterans who were less than honorably dismissed, that would give them access to benefits they would have otherwise been entitled to. But servicemembers told CBS News that many of those who qualify have been reluctant to seek an upgrade because they believe it’s difficult to access.
“The Department has conducted several outreach campaigns to inform all Veterans who believe they have suffered an error or injustice to seek correction to their military records,” the Department of Defense told CBS News. “This effort included an individualized letter campaign during the 5th anniversary of the repeal of DADT policy to those who may have been personally impacted.”
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who serves on the Veterans Affairs Committee, called for a review of the upgrade process after the CBS News report.
“The discharge upgrade system needs to be reviewed because right now, the burden is totally on the veteran who may be completely uninformed about what their rights are,” Blumenthal said.
Lambre says she first started the process in 2013 without success. “It just got stalled and I didn’t feel like there was any hope for anything,” she said.
The Navy said it would not comment on Lambre’s case due to privacy.
Two weeks ago, Allen learned his discharge upgrade had come through, giving him access to benefits he previously couldn’t access like VA loans and tuition assistance.
“It’s an absolute 100% game-changer. Things that I never thought that I could do or get or have or attain now are attainable,” Allen said after receiving the news.