WASHINGTON -- A group of Democratic lawmakers urged the Defense Department Thursday to allow all service members discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" to apply for honorable-discharge status, which would make them eligible for veterans' benefits.
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) sent the letter, signed by 32 of her Democratic colleagues, to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. While many service members discharged under DADT received an honorable characterization, many others did not.
"The most likely deterrent to VA benefits for those discharged under DADT is a discharge characterization of 'other than honorable," reads the letter, whose signatories also include the four openly gay members of Congress -- Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), David Cicilline (D-R.I.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.). "We urge you to study and implement procedures to make it easier for those who believe their discharge characterization under DADT was inappropriate to make their case to the VA and, if successful, to restore those benefits."
As Stars and Stripes notes, "Troops with other-than-honorable dismissals can apply for health care related to service-connected injuries, but the department can deny treatment for health issues that develop later in life. They are not eligible for GI Bill benefits, and may be refused veterans home loans." An "other than honorable" discharge can also hurt service members who apply for jobs in civilian life.
While gay-rights advocates have applauded Defense Secretary Robert Gates' commitment to quickly moving forward on certifying and implementing the repeal of the military's ban o openly gay service members, they are still concerned about a number of outstanding issues, in addition to discharged status.
Kerry Eleveld of Equality Matters has raised the issue of a lack of legal recourse for service members who face discrimination based on sexual orientation after repeal. "Eliminating discharges is only part of the battle in terms of protecting gay service members, and candidate Barack Obama was extremely clear on this point," she wrote Thursday.
The Human Rights Campaign has also argued that the Defense Department's current plans for repeal implementation do not "go far enough in calling for parity in benefits that could be accomplished through revised regulations that add same-sex committed partners to the definitions of 'dependent,' 'family member,' or other similar terms." At a briefing with reporters last week, Clifford Stanley, the defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness, said he did not believe there would be a change in who can receive spousal benefits at this point, since the Defense of Marriage Act -- which defines marriage as between one man and one woman -- is still federal law.