Patty Murray and Major Margaret Witt: Not pleased with the miilitary's treatment of LGBT veterans in the post-DADT era.
Between 1993 and 2011, when the U.S. military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy was in effect, some 13,500 soldiers were "dishonorably" discharged for being gay.
Back before DADT even existed, hundreds of thousands of other gay servicemembers were kicked out under older discriminatory policies—but for the same homophobic reason.
So how's it going for those gay veterans now that DADT has been repealed and the U.S. military has disavowed its discriminatory past?
Not well, according to a handful of prominent gay veterans who spoke with U.S. Senator Patty Murray on Wednesday morning during a roundtable held at the offices of the Greater Seattle Business Association.
Many gay veterans—especially those kicked out under DADT—are currently being denied benefits they are owed for serving their country, or are being made to jump through ridiculous hoops to get their "dishonorable" discharges changed so that they can start receiving benefits.
“The repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was a major breakthrough, but it was not the end," Murray admitted on Wednesday. "It was really a beginning.”
Shaun Knittel, a Navy vet who runs a web site designed to help gay veterans, told Murray that a lot of gay vets who were kicked out of the military for being gay "have no idea what their benefits are supposed to be."
No one ever told them on their way out—these weren't exactly nice goodbyes—and these soldiers generally assume the answer is zero benefits. Even if they don't assume this, their feelings about the military often don't predispose them to getting back in touch and figuring out whether they do, indeed, deserve health care, home loan, college, or disability assistance.
At the very least, Knittel and others told Murray, the understaffed veterans health care system desperately needs some sort of gay liaison or ombudsman—or even a team of people like this at veterans hospitals throughout the country—tasked with making sure gay vets feel comfortable learning about and accessing the basic benefits that are supposed to be afforded them by the VA.
“It’s the same as when you have bullying in school," Knittel said. "If you're a closeted gay kid, are you going to go talk to any counselor? No. But if you see a counselor with a rainbow flag on her mug, you might talk to her.”
Before any of this benefit accessing can happen, though, there's the seemingly simple act of getting a gay vet's "dishonorable" discharge—which can affect employment opportunities, levels of health care coverage at veterans hospitals, and more—changed into an honorable discharge.
Right now, however, that process can be so labyrinthine and discouraging that it requires a lawyer's assistance.
“I think that’s tragic," Knittel told Murray.
“I agree," Murray said.
You'd think the obvious solution here would be a sort of blanket amnesty for all the gay servicemembers kicked out under DADT. Just change all those "dishonorable" discharges to "honorable" discharges in one fell swoop and move on. Murray appeared to think so, too. "It seems to me that would be the easiest thing to do," she told me after the meeting was over.
One problem: It's not clear whether the military was keeping good records of who it was discharging under DADT—or before then—simply for being gay. In other words, it may not know who, exactly, to grant blanket amnesty to right now.
Untangling that whole mess, Murray said, "seems to me like a process we should undertake as a country.”