Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand today announced legislation to help service members discharged solely due to their sexual orientation correct their military records to reflect their honorable service and reinstate the benefits they earned. The Restore Honor to Service Members Act of 2015 would make it easier for service members discharged because of sexual orientation to initiate a process to change their record to reflect their honorable service, and would require the Department of Defense to ensure a consistent, timely and transparent process for changing these records across the services.
“The Restore Honor to Service Members Act will help streamline the process for veterans to clear their records of discriminatory discharges,” said Senator Gillibrand. “Veterans who honorably serve our nation should not be fighting for their honor and their benefits. Our veterans deserve to receive the recognition and benefits they earned for the sacrifice they made for our country.”
Since the Second World War, more than 100,000 service members are estimated to have been discharged from the military because of their sexual orientation, many with less-than-honorable discharges that have barred them from the benefits that they earned. Without a bill to protect these veterans, thousands of Americans who risked their lives to serve this country continue to be denied access to the GI Bill and veterans’ health care, and they can have a more difficult time finding civilian employment. Even those whose discharges were deemed “honorable” still face a high risk of discrimination. Many times, the reason for their discharge may indicate their sexual orientation, threatening their privacy when they share their paperwork with employers and landlords who may use that information to deny them a job or housing, either overtly or under a false pretense.
For the tens of thousands discharged before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” went into effect in 1994, it is nearly impossible to prove that they were discriminated against and discharged from the military because of their sexual orientation. The military did not openly admit its prejudice against gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members, but it still used sexual orientation to decide that many service members were unfit to serve, and kicked them out. For many of these veterans, there was no additional aggravating circumstance surrounding their other-than-honorable discharge – only sexual orientation – yet since this discrimination is often not captured in a service member’s record, it is difficult to correct.
While the Department of Defense has taken important steps to create an avenue for service members to appeal their discharge characterization and change their discharge narrative, the process remains cumbersome, requiring paperwork that service members do not have or may never have had access to.
This bill would ensure that gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members who were discharged for no other reason than their sexual orientation have an opportunity to have their records corrected to reflect their honorable service. The bill would:
- Require the discharge boards of the Department of Defense and military services to establish a timely, consistent, and transparent process for reviewing the records of service members claiming to have been discharged solely because of their sexual orientation;
- Streamline the paperwork requirement necessary for service members to initiate a review in an effort to make the process for corrective action accessible and achievable for all;
- Require the Department of Defense to change the characterization to reflect an honorable discharge in the service member’s record and give the service member all rights, privileges, and benefits associated with their honorable service;
- Require the Department of Defense to release a yearly report of the review process, and it would require the historians of each of the military services to review the facts and circumstances of the estimated 100,000 service members discharged for their sexual orientation prior to the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Gillibrand introduced the legislation with Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI) earlier this year. Currently, there are 38 Senate co-sponsors on the legislation including Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Tom Carper (D-DE), Chris Coons (D-DE), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Al Franken (D-MN), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Ed Markey (D-MA), Claire McCaskill (D-MO0, Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Patty Murray (D-WA), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Gary Peters (D-MI), Harry Reid (D-NV), Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Tester, Jon (D-MT), Tom Udall (D-NM), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Ron Wyden (D-OR). The companion House version has 106 co-sponsors, including 110 Democrats and 4 Republicans.