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Letter to Leon Panetta, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Defense

Letter

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Date:
Location: Unknown

U.S. Senators Mark Udall, Kirsten Gillibrand and Joseph Lieberman today urged the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to streamline its process for veterans discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) to have their discharge documents changed so that it is easier for veterans to gain employment. In their letter to DOD Secretary Leon Panetta, the senators urged him to expedite the creation of a process that would streamline the process for these veterans who were discharged because of their sexual orientation.

"Even though we ended DADT last year, more than 14,000 veterans who were forced to leave the military because of their sexual orientation still have an unfair stigma hanging over them," Udall said. "Many of those veterans are now beginning the long process of correcting their discharge paperwork to ensure that their records reflect the quality of their service - not the discriminatory legacy that forced them from the military, weakening our national security in the process. Especially at a time of such high unemployment for our veterans, we should make it as easy as possible for them to maintain their personal privacy by making such corrections."

"We need to right wrongful discharges for our veterans immediately," Gillibrand said. "Last fall, we ended the discriminatory Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. Now it's time to create an efficient way for veterans, who were discharged because of who they love, to receive clean, honorable discharge paperwork. Veterans that were discharged under DADT served our country courageously and with dignity and we need to give them the appropriate recognition immediately."

"Although this harmful and wrongheaded policy has been repealed, it left behind a legacy of injustice that continues to discriminate against the gay and lesbian service members whom were discharged under it," Lieberman said. "By streamlining the process to correct these service members' discharge documents, the Department of Defense can ensure that these courageous Americans move forward with dignity in their careers and private lives."

At present, the DOD has agreed to change the status of the discharge documents for these veterans but the system to complete this process is full of red tape, protracted and overly burdensome for veterans, as they are required to produce service-related paperwork, which many do not possess. Additionally, former service members' Narrative Reason for a discharge is "Homosexual Conduct," "Homosexual Act" or "Homosexual Marriage," which "outs" their sexual orientation to future potential employers and carries negative connotations that could negatively impact future employment opportunities.

The text of the letter follows:

Dear Secretary Panetta,

When the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) took effect on September 20, 2011, then-Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Dr. Clifford Stanley issued a memorandum providing guidance to the military services regarding applications from veterans separated on the basis of their sexual orientation seeking changes to their discharge paperwork. The memorandum made clear that Discharge Review Boards (DRBs) "should normally grant requests to change the narrative reason for a discharge...[and that] requests to re-characterize the discharge to honorable and/or requests to change reentry codes to an immediately-eligible-to-reenter category" should be granted when the original discharge was based solely on DADT and there "were no aggravating factors in the record, such as misconduct." The guidance goes on to say that while "each request must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis," having "an honorable or general discharge should normally...indicate the absence of aggravating factors."

While this guidance was an important step in the right direction, it is insufficient for the vast majority of veterans discharged under DADT. The current process is protracted and overly burdensome for veterans who-according to Dr. Stanley's guidance-should be entitled to have their discharge documents corrected. Our understanding is that many veterans who meet the criteria outlined above must first gather their service-related paperwork, which many veterans do not possess. The veteran must then file an application with the supporting documentation to overcome the presumption of the DRB that the discharge was proper. To accomplish this, the veteran must argue that the discharge should be changed according to the standards of "propriety" or "equity," per DRB regulations. Only after overcoming this presumption will the DRB change the discharge paperwork.

We understand that changing discharge paperwork is not a small matter and that in most cases, a careful case-by-case evaluation is warranted. But as long as a former service member's Narrative Reason for a discharge is "Homosexual Conduct," "Homosexual Act" or "Homosexual Marriage," that service member is compelled to be "out" to any future civilian employer and anyone else who sees the document. Likewise, the negative reentry code serves as a barrier to employment opportunities.

Therefore, the process should be streamlined for those veterans discharged under DADT who have honorable or general discharges and only seek changes to their narrative reason for discharge and their reentry code. We thus respectfully request that the Department clarify that DRBs shall correct discharge paperwork upon receipt of a basic DD Form 293 application, provided that the DRB can then obtain the veteran's DD Form 214 and service record. The Department should further clarify that, where there are no aggravating factors in the service member's record, the presumption should be in favor of correction.

Veterans who were discharged under DADT should not be compelled to carry with them a narrative reason for separation that indicates their sexual orientation to anyone who sees their discharge document. In order to begin to put the regrettable policy of DADT fully behind us, the process of getting these documents corrected needs to be accessible and achievable for all. Thank you for your attention to this important matter.


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