Our veterans are some of the most treasured warriors our country has, but a group has long been kept in the closet.
It’s believed that more than 100,000 veterans have been kicked out of the military for being LGBT, and groups like American Veterans for Equal Rights (AVER) are working to advocate for those who laid their lives on the line.
“We need to [give them] support, especially after they've been serving in Afghanistan or Iraq or some place like this, where they’ve been shot at and everything else, then they come back and some of them have PTSD and they come back and their families throw them out because they’re queer,” said Lee Lawson, the president of AVER’s Gold Coast chapter.
Lawson served in the Army from 1959 to 1962 during the Cold War. Working in intelligence engineering and mapping, he went to 23 different countries in the three years he served, including Germany the day the Berlin Wall went up.
“I was fresh out of high school and it was an easy way to get an education and see the world,” he said.
Growing up in Iowa, he said there was no such thing as being “out,” much less in the military. He barely even knew what being gay meant, and any of his attractions to men were kept a secret.
“It would be the quickest way to get thrown out,” he explained. “Military life is a lot different than civilian life.”
In fact, over the years and also thanks to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, many LGBT veterans have a less than honorable discharge on their records due to being LGBT. According to OutServe, an LGBT veterans advocacy group, some have it on their record that they were discharged due to “homosexual acts.” In the military world, a less than honorable discharge taints one’s military record, a blazing scarlet letter.
It’s believed that more than 100,000 veterans were kicked out of the military for being LGBT. With the repeal of DADT, the Obama administration directed the Department of Defense to upgrade LGBT veterans to an honorable discharge if being gay was the reason cited for being kicked out of the military. According to the New York Times, about 80 percent of the nearly 500 requests were granted an upgrade.
In January, an 82-year-old Ohio veteran’s record was finally upgraded to honorably discharged after he was kicked out of the Army in 1955 for being gay, according to the Associated Press. He was serving in Frankfurt, Germany at the time.
Transgender military personnel are a different story — they are still not allowed to serve in the military, although Sec. of Defense Ash Carter made waves last summer when he called for the department — whose rules he called “outdated” — to conduct a study to observe the “policy and readiness implications of welcoming transgender persons to serve openly.”
“Transgender men and women in uniform have been there with us, even as they often had to serve in silence alongside their fellow comrades in arms,” he said in a statement.
There are also cases where an amendment is complicated. Rather than citing that a person is gay on his or her record, Lawson explained that some commanders would write another reason — thinking they were doing the person a favor by not outing them on paper — such as disobeying a direct order. There, it becomes difficult to upgrade when there’s no proof that one’s homosexuality was the reason they were discharged.
Oregon is paving the way for LGBT soldiers — Sen. Sara Gelser created a special LGBT liaison in the state’s Department of Veterans Affairs to help LGBT veterans, especially with getting their less than honorable discharges upgraded.
“It seemed a tremendous injustice, and I was particularly concerned about aging vets. I wanted them to have access to needed services, an apology for being mistreated, and a thank you for their generous service to our country,” Gelser told SFGN.
Commanding officers also have the power to keep legally married same-sex couples apart during tours of duty — even though DADT is repealed. Lawson said commanders have let their prejudices get the best of them and claim that there are no vacancies on military bases, forcing same-sex couples to live apart.
Thom Kostura and Ijpe DeKoe, an Army soldier, were married in 2011 when it was legal in New York, just three days before DeKoe was shipped out to Afghanistan for a nine-month deployment. When he returned, he was stationed in Tennessee - where their marriage was not recognized. They joined the list of plaintiffs going to the Supreme Court to fight the Defense of Marriage Act — and won.
However, many of the issues facing LGBT veterans affect all veterans, particularly post traumatic stress disorder. Plus, Lawson has heard anecdotes of many veterans coming home from war, only to be kicked out of their homes when they come out.
The Gold Coast chapter of AVER hosts a drop-in group on the first, third, and fourth Tuesdays of the month from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at SunServe, 2312 Wilton Drive in Wilton Manors. Here, LGBT veterans can meet people who have been in their shoes and share their stories. Or, Lawson said, they don’t have to talk about it at all — sometimes just being in the presence of people you know have shared experiences can be powerful.
Another healing therapy AVER offers is its pet program. Sometimes having a pet, which depends on you and shows love and affection, can be a great part of healing.
“Probably the biggest problem people have is loneliness. Even though they’re in a big crowd, they’re alone and it can be very hard on your mind ... You’ve got to break out of it,” Lawson said.