Former SSgt. David Hall grew up knowing he wanted to join the Air Force. An Air Force "brat," both his father and his stepfather retired from the Air Force. Nothing gave him greater pleasure or pride than putting on his uniform and serving his country. Throughout his career, he was decorated with a number of awards, and served at stations from Langley Air Force Base to Saudi Arabia. After being discharged from active duty in August 2001, he joined the Air Force ROTC and was slotted as a pilot -- the culmination of all of his dreams and hard work.
David also happens to be a gay man.
Tragically, David's dreams were dashed almost as quickly as they came to pass. Just a year after he entered the ROTC, a fellow cadet "outed" him to his commanders, and due to the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy of the time, David was kicked out of the ROTC and given a piece of paper indicating he was no longer fit for military duty due to "homosexual conduct." To this day, David remembers wearing his flight suit for the last time.
Almost two years after the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell," tens of thousands of gay veterans like David still live with the emotional scars and the practical consequences of our country's former discriminatory policies. Since World War II, up to the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" in 2011, approximately 114,000 men and women who risked their lives for our country were discharged for no other reason than their sexual orientation. Beyond the humiliation of being forced out of the military, many of these veterans possess records that are tarnished with a range of discharges and designations because of their sexuality.
As we celebrate the considerable progress we've made toward full equality in our military, we cannot forget about those who continue to suffer because of the discriminatory policies of our past. While it is a tremendous accomplishment that today men and women can serve openly without fear of dismissal or retribution, we will not close the book on "Don't Ask Don't Tell" until we pursue justice for the thousands of courageous veterans who saw their dreams and careers decimated by an unjust policy.
That is why, along with Congressman Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and 100 of my bipartisan colleagues, I have introduced the Restore Honor to Service Members Act to make the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" permanent law, ensuring gay and lesbian service members who were discharged for no other reason than their sexual orientation have their records upgraded to reflect their honorable service.
For gay veterans, this legislation would be far more than a symbolic recognition of their service. The consequences of a blemished military record can stay with veterans throughout their lives. While the characterization of discharge varied, many service members received discharges that were classified as "other than honorable" or "dishonorable," particularly prior to the implementation of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy. Service members with "less than honorable" discharges often times have difficulties securing civilian employment. They can be prohibited from receiving veterans benefits they'd otherwise be entitled to -- such as access to the GI Bill, veteran's health care, and a military burial. And in certain states, a "dishonorable" discharge is treated as a felony and can strip a veteran's right to vote.
Today, the process for a veteran to have his or her record reviewed is often times confusing and varied, discouraging many deserving veterans from pursuing a rightful upgrade of their record. Our legislation will create a timely, consistent and transparent review process so that gay veterans who served honorably have their records justly upgraded to honorable. Our bill will also allow veterans to remove any indication of their sexual orientation, so they are not automatically "outed" to those accessing their record, or left with the indication that their sexual orientation makes them any less able to serve.
While we can never give these brave veterans back the time or service they were denied to provide this country, we can take steps to help restore the honor they deserve. The strong support we have already received for the Restore Honor to Service Members Act demonstrates the country is ready to move beyond the dark periods of our past and recognize the service of all of our courageous men and women of the military, no matter whom they love.
Follow Rep. Mark Pocan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/repmarkpocan