Today, Congressman Steve Israel (D-Huntington) announced new legislation that would repeal and reverse dishonorable discharges for gay veterans. Before the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT), some servicemembers received dishonorable and other less than honorable discharges due to their sexual orientation. The new legislation would enable these veterans to finally receive the full recognition and benefits they deserve for their service to our country.
Rep. Israel said, "It is simply unacceptable that veterans who put their lives on the line for our country were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. For too long, many of these veterans have been denied the full recognition and benefits they deserve. The legislation that will be introduced will finally right this long overdue wrong."
David Kilmnick, CEO of Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth, spoke in support of the legislation. He said, "Thousands of gay men and women have served our country and put their lives on the line for our freedom, liberty and justice. It's about time we right a wrong that has impacted the lives of thousands of gay service members and their families. The bill that Congressman Israel is supporting will finally bring justice to these brave Americans who proudly served our great nation."
Robert O. Hawkins, Jr. of Stony Brook also spoke in support of the legislation. In 1962, Mr. Hawkins, an Ensign in the Navy, was given the option of resigning his commission with an "Other Than Honorable" designation or facing a court-martial after he was accused of homosexuality. In 2010, with the help of a lawyer, he was able to get his discharge changed to Honorable.
He said, "My service to the navy during that short time was exemplary, and I truly wanted to make the navy my life's career. But I was left with no alternative, and began my life as a civilian looking for a career. There are many navy servicemembers, as well as other servicemembers, who were put in the same position as I, and I have no idea how many were able to get that upgrade that they needed in order to feel that they had indeed served in an honorable way, and to give them access to the services available for veterans."
More than 31,000 servicemembers were discharged for homosexuality from 1980-2009. Most were given an Honorable or General Under Honorable Conditions discharge on the basis of their service records, but a servicemember who was discharged for a "Homosexual Act" that involved an "aggravating factor" could have received an Other Than Honorable (OTH) discharge for nothing more than holding hands in a restaurant. Prior to DADT, servicemembers discharged due to homosexuality were very likely to receive discharges that were less than Honorable. With a Dishonorable or Other Than Honorable discharge, veterans could have limited or no access to benefits that other veterans receive, such as GI Bill and VA health care benefits. The new legislation supported by Rep. Israel will put a system in place so these veterans can have their records cleaned and upgraded.