A group of Democratic lawmakers is pushing the White House to allow HIV-positive individuals to enlist in the military, saying current rules ignore the latest advancements in health care for those living with the virus.
“The current policy banning these individuals from enlisting or joining a commissioning program is outdated and without merit, and does not reflect the military’s commitment to equality, diversity, and the inclusion of all races, ethnicities, religions, and sexual orientations in service,” a group of six Democratic senators and 34 House Democrats wrote in a letter Wednesday.
“Anyone who is qualified and has a desire to serve their country should be allowed to do so, and we remain optimistic the administration will heed this important call.”
The move comes three months after the Defense Department updated its policies pertaining to HIV-positive service members, allowing them to stay in uniform and remain deployable provided they have no detectable viral load.
It also follows a series of court rulings which similarly blocked military commanders from dismissing troops with HIV simply because of their medical status.
But neither of those moves apply to would-be military recruits with human immunodeficiency virus, which can cause acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The lawmakers in their letter called that an unfortunate oversight.
“Just as it abandoned the defense of discriminatory restrictions on service members living with HIV, we ask your administration to abandon these excuses for continuing to prevent people living with HIV who are stabilized in treatment from joining the U.S. military,” their letter said.
The group is also pushing for the Defense Department to drop similar restrictions on individuals with the hepatitis B virus (HBV), saying current rules regarding those individuals similarly ignore the latest medical treatments and health care guidelines.
The push drew support from outside advocacy groups who called the issue a matter of fairness.
“The current policy banning the military enlistment of individuals with well-managed HIV and HBV ignores the science in favor of stigma,” said JoDee Winterhof, senior vice president of policy for the Human Rights Campaign.
“Due to advancements in modern medicine regarding HIV and HBV, individuals living with these viruses can and do lead long and full lives, often requiring just one pill a day to manage their condition. These advancements also mean that the risk of transmission is near zero and the research demonstrates that neither of these viruses makes an individual less able to serve.”
Service members — as well as cadets and midshipmen — are required to be monitored regularly by health care providers to ensure their HIV viral load is controllable. If not, they could face a medical board process and be discharged.
Under changes outlined by DOD officials earlier this summer, a working group will create specific monitoring guidelines for those cases. That is due to be completed in early 2023.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.