With the legalization of gay marriage just months ago, many same-sex couples have finally begun to find acceptance in civilian life. Some of our very own veterans, however, have not been so fortunate.
Between World War II and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2011, more than 100,000 service members were discharged because of their sexuality. One of them was Pvt. Donald Hallman, who served in the U.S. Army. Hallman and was discharged in 1955 when he was 21 years old for being a “Class II homosexual” — a label that has barred him, and many others, from receiving veterans’ benefits, government jobs and other employment.
The categorization for receiving an “OTH” (Other Than Honorable) discharge involved several aggravating factors such as acts involving minors and prostitution, which, granted, should serve as grounds for military release for anyone. However, some of these “aggravating factors” also included innocent acts openly performed in public, such as holding hands or giving someone a hug.
Veterans are often required to submit their discharge paperwork when applying for jobs, and this alone has proven to be a scarlet letter of its own kind. Employers can make an array of conclusions from this alone, like assuming that the former service member was terminated for misbehavior or wrongdoing. This is often not the case. Now, there are means through which this undesirable label can be upgraded. The only catch is that our government has made it nearly impossible to do so.
Joshua Hoffman, a former Air Force member, has faced the same hardships as Hallman.
“I was kicked out of my job, my church, my housing: I had nothing,” Hoffman told the New York Times. “It took a long time to realize I deserved respect.”
Hoffman was fortunate enough to receive an upgrade to “honorable discharge” only a year after reaching out to the Air Force. However, the reality is that many aren’t able to receive a similar timely response. Tracking down 30- to 40-year-old records is extremely tedious, and the time it takes to do this can mean the difference between life and death for some. Through Veteran Affairs, those with honorable discharges have health care readily available to them. The process of upgrading can take several years — time that those who have fallen ill can’t spare.
It is horrifying to know that a life can be compromised as a result of this age-old view on homosexuality. It is even more unsettling that a bill that would grant upgrades to thousands of veterans has been quietly sitting in Congress since 2013. Activists say that it has little to no chance of moving forward.
How can we be so progressive and enact such a landmark decision like legalizing gay marriage nationwide, yet we deny our veterans their well-earned benefits?
Hallman, now 82, said after being discharged in 1955, he never mentioned his military service again.
“I hid it because it would have ruined my life,” he said in an interview with the Times.
There is a grave issue when those who have put their lives on the line for their country are forced to hide their pasts because of a label placed upon them by his government. It was only recently when Hallman’s daughter questioned her father on why he was not eligible for V.A. benefits that he decided to begin his application to the Department of Defense.
This process for upgrading can potentially give veterans access to their deserved benefits, but where’s the honor in having to petition for something you earned?
Radharany Diaz is a contributing writer for the Central Florida Future.