Military veterans kicked out for being gay still fighting for honorable discharges
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The 1993 law known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” — which allowed gay people to serve in the U.S. military, so long as they remained closeted — has been repealed for over a decade, but many of those whose military careers were ended by the policy are still missing out on honorable discharge status and benefits, a CBS News investigation has found.
An estimated 14,000 service members were kicked out under the discriminatory policy during its 18 years on the books, in some cases with discharges that deprived them access to the full benefits afforded to those with honorable discharges including VA loan programs, college tuition assistance, health care, and some federal jobs.
Donnie Ray Allen, a Marine veteran, and Amy Lambre, who served in the Navy, both say the early years of “don’t ask, don’t tell” brought a fresh wave of homophobia and witch-hunting to the military.
“If you put your hand on your hip, if you sat with your legs crossed — the witch hunt was always around, no matter what, during those times in the military,” Allen said.”I was so angry and mad at the situation that we were all forced to serve that way.”
Lambre and Allen were kicked out of the military with less than honorable discharges after allegations of homosexual conduct. They say they’ve spent years suffering from the emotional fallout.
“Most of my friends will tell you I’ve never really talked about what happened to me, what I had to live through, because I didn’t know how to heal from that trauma,” Allen said.
“I’m ‘less than’ … less than honorable,” Lambre said, explaining how this discharge changed her sense of self. “It’s a dark place.”
There are official channels that allow veterans who were less than honorably dismissed from the military under the defunct rules of “don’t ask, don’t tell” to apply for an upgraded discharge that would open doors to benefits they would have otherwise been entitled to. But servicemembers told CBS News that many of those who qualify have been reluctant to seek an upgrade because they believe it’s difficult to access.
Lambre says she first started the process in 2013 without success. “It just got stalled and I didn’t feel like there was any hope for anything,” she said.
The Navy would not comment on Amy Lambre’s case due to privacy.
“The Department has conducted several outreach campaigns to inform all Veterans who believe they have suffered an error or injustice to seek correction to their military records,” the Department of Defense told CBS News. “This effort included an individualized letter campaign during the 5th anniversary of the repeal of DADT policy to those who may have been personally impacted.”
The Pentagon added that it has collaborated with the Department of Veterans Affairs “to update its web-based tool that provides Veterans with customized, step-by-step instructions on how to request an upgrade to their discharge, based upon their responses to a series of questions.”
But even the VA has acknowledged that veterans have been deterred from this process, writing in a September 2021 blog post that “large numbers of LGBTQ+ Veterans who were affected by previous homophobic and transphobic policies have not applied for a discharge upgrade due to the perception that the process could be onerous.” That observation is backed up by the numbers. According to the most recent data available, just 1,242 veterans who were discharged or dismissed as a result of their sexual orientation have been granted discharge upgrades.
Leon Panetta, the secretary of defense who oversaw the repeal in 2011, acknowledged to CBS News, “there wasn’t a lot of thought about the people who’d been discharged, who’d gone through hell on this issue, about: ‘What do we do about them?’ And in some ways I regret that.”
“It’s like everything else when it comes to civil rights,” Panetta said. “In order to be able to move forward and embrace the future, you can’t just push the past aside.”
Part of the challenge in identifying service members who were wrongly dismissed is that in some cases they were hit with other infractions, even though the driving motivation behind their dismissal may have been their sexual orientation. Former Air Force Captain Andrew Espinosa has spent 30 years fighting what he believes was a conviction fueled by homophobia.
In May 1993, a few months before “don’t ask don’t tell” was implemented but in the middle of a debate raging about whether gay people could serve, Espinosa’s life changed forever. He was pulled out of combat duty after an accusation was made that he put his hand on the knee of a male airman and kissed him on the cheek. Espinosa has always maintained his innocence but told CBS News, “Just the accusation itself set these wheels in motion that never stopped.”
He says that accusation was the catalyst for a life-changing indictment on a charge of indecent assault — a federal felony.
At the time, Espinosa says the military claimed his case had nothing to do with his sexual orientation — despite a 1993 letter from a military official to his mother acknowledging “homosexuality is a factor in this case.” He also had support from an Air Force chaplain, who wrote in a letter to his command, “the recent debates on gays in the military and the subsequent policy statement seems to have fanned the flames of homophobic hysteria in the military. … It is this irrational fear, I believe, that seems to be the motivation for the command’s insistence in putting Capt Espinosa on trial.”
Espinosa was found guilty at trial and was dishonorably discharged — the most serious form of punitive discharge — leaving him without health care or any VA benefits. Later in life, when Espinosa applied to be a census taker, he says he was denied because of his dishonorable discharge, which prohibits him from working for the federal government.
When asked about Espinosa’s case, an Air Force spokesperson told CBS News, “there was insufficient evidence to warrant clemency in this case,” adding that they “looked at the possibility of an upgrade based on the repeal of the Department of Defense Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy” but determined that the circumstances that led to “the applicant’s discharge did not meet these conditions.”
Espinosa has been left with few means to appeal his conviction. The Air Force said he continues to have “the option to submit new evidence” for reconsideration of his case or seek a presidential pardon. But after having already received two denials, Espinosa says he has given up. “I’m not gonna go beg.”
In response to questions from CBS News about the time it takes to process a discharge upgrade application, the Defense Department said the individual review boards — which are controlled by each service branch — “strive to finalize 90% of all cases within 10 months.”
The Air Force says its Board for the Correction of Military Records and its Discharge Review Board have taken an average of 209 days and 114 days, respectively, over the last three years to process applications. The Navy says its Board for the Correction of Naval Records and its Naval Discharge Review Board are currently issuing decisions within 4 to 6 months and 6 to 10 months, respectively.
Earlier this month, the system worked for Donnie Ray Allen. He finally received his honorable discharge, triggering access to benefits he never thought he’d have.
“Even saying it, like, I can’t stop smiling ’cause I’m just like, ‘Wow!’ Like, it actually happened,” he said.
For Leon Panetta, there’s still more work to be done.
“It’s not just about the future,” Panetta said. “It’s also about making sure that we correct the past.”