We still owe LGBT veterans for their patriotism and service

We still owe LGBT veterans for their patriotism and service
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Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonDeval Patrick beefs up campaign staff Lawmakers honor JFK on 56th anniversary of his death Pardoning war crimes dishonors the military MORE (D-Mass.), a four-tour veteran of the Iraq War, has dropped out of the presidential race. But, while campaigning, he pledged to expunge the records of men and women dishonorably discharged for serving in the military as homosexuals. 

Some of these gay and lesbian military officers and enlisted persons were "discovered," or hunted down, during the time of the soul-grating "Don’t ask, don’t tell" law, hatched by the moral-triangulating of the Clinton administration. Scores of thousands of other discharges occurred before DADT came into force.

In an interview I wish I had written up before his campaign ended, but which still seems appropriate, Moulton told me he thought it wrong that we were defiling the service of “veterans who have served admirably and honorably and to whom we owe a great debt.” He said the numbers of veterans who still have stained records are “100,000 since World War II — an extraordinary number of veterans who are not getting their benefits now, who are not getting to go to the VA for their health benefits like I do. They don’t get the GI Bill that allowed me to go to grad school. And there are all sorts of other benefits that they are excluded from.”

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Why, I asked, did this issue matter so much to him, and why did he prioritize working with OutVets, a group representing gay veterans, when he was a straight veteran? He replied that he owed much of this to a good friend, a former Marine.  

Moulton said he had a lot of experience with people who were gay or bisexual and “I served with them.” This particular friend actually came out just after he got out of the Marines: “He knew he was gay but he didn’t come out while he was in. And he and I are both from Massachusetts and were together in grad school. And then we both got called back as part of the 2007 surge in Iraq. All he would have had to do to get out of this is call the Marine Corps and say two words: ‘I’m gay.’ No one would have begrudged him. But he and I talked a lot about it, and he decided — like a lot of veterans — ‘I didn’t want anyone else to go in my place.’ So he went back into the closet and he did another tour. He had already done two.”

Moulton described his friend as a completely dedicated, professional soldier, a caring human being, “a good man” who represented the best of America, fighting for his fellow citizens.  

Thus, while sharing what he would do if elected president, Moulton said he would correct this wrong policy against veterans — many of them heroes — by executive action. A humane fix, a presidential order that retroactively reverses dishonorable and general discharges for revelations of homosexuality to honorable status, if no other crimes were connected.

Today, military personnel who had been discharged for their homosexual status can apply to have their records cleared, but Moulton said that puts the burden for reversing a moral mistake on the personnel themselves. These veterans, who volunteered to serve and sacrificed for their fellow citizens, who had been wronged by this policy born of an earlier era of intolerance and hate, would have to shoulder their own mission to cleanse their records. Moulton believes this is wrong, and so do I. He said the costs to do this were trivial, “just $60 million, nothing in the Pentagon budget.”  

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When I was young, I sat at the ringside of the hunt of gay men in the military, and I heard the bloodlust of some investigators as they tried to entrap what were mostly young enlisted men in the U.S. Air Force. My father was not one of those who enjoyed the hunt, but it was his job in part to investigate rumors and accusations of homosexuality in military ranks in his role with the USAF Office of Special Investigations. My dad was an electronics whiz and worked on some of the earliest tech gadgets used in counterintelligence operations against the old Soviet Union; that was the biggest part of his work. He was a humane, caring person, but the part of his job that didn't involve wrestling with the Soviets instead involved catching Air Force personnel black-marketing beef, chocolate, sugar or Coca-Cola from base commissaries — and also catching gays in the military’s ranks.

I remember hearing of good lives destroyed, of individuals fully committed to serving the military whose entire existence would be upended when their secrets were discovered and then weaponized against them.  

The entire climate of homophobic hunting of gay and lesbian service people I heard about while a Department of Defense "dependent" still haunts me — and Moulton is right that these veterans of service who were denied the right to have their honor and service respected and celebrated should be corrected. 

When then-Secretary of the Army Eric Fanning was preparing to depart his office near the end of President Obama’s term, I asked him whether the rights of transgendered service people serving openly in the military could be reversed. Fanning and then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter had worked hard to build the structures and policies that would embrace open transgendered service. Fanning’s response: “It’s hard to roll back rights.”

It turns out, unfortunately, that Fanning was wrong: It’s easier than anyone may have believed to collapse the rights of minority groups in the United States unless they are constantly nurtured, secured legally and permanently, and rolled forward. And that is why Seth Moulton’s initiative has importance far beyond his suspended presidential run. It is about rights today — and doing what was right on behalf of those wronged by hateful policies in the past.

We should be thankful to all of our veterans, heterosexual or LGBTQ+ individuals, who have put their lives and talents on the line for the general welfare of this nation. We have work to do to restore their privileges and rights, and it should not be a partisan issue. 

Steve Clemons is Editor at Large of The Hill.