Military veterans know that all things come to an end, especially our time in the service. There are those who gave all, who died serving our country. Some serve for decades and retire. Some see the grass as greener on the other side and leave for other reasons. And there are others, like me. I was involuntarily discharged in 2008 due to my sexual orientation. I am one of over 35,000.
Two years ago, President Joe Biden marked the 10th anniversary of the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, or DADT, and reiterated his support for LGBTQ+ veterans and service members in a statement. The president said, “Many of these veterans received what are known as ‘other than honorable’ discharges, excluding them and their families from the vitally important services and benefits they had sacrificed so much to earn.”
But words are not enough. We need action.
Leaving the burden of removing sexual orientation indicators from discharge paperwork and seeking discharge upgrades to veterans themselves has not worked. There are over 35,000 veterans who were discharged due to their sexual orientation, and over 29,000 of those veterans did not receive an honorable discharge and should have their discharges upgraded. Fewer than 1,500 eligible veterans have been able to upgrade their discharges.
I am a Marine Corps veteran. I served on active duty from 1999 to 2003 and served a tour of duty in the reserves in Iraq in 2005. I knew early in my life that I wanted to serve my community and my country. I am proud to say that I have done that.
My parents immigrated from South Korea to the United States. They came for more educational and job opportunities and set roots in the Los Angeles area. They both worked in the medical profession and inspired me to serve others. So, in 1999, I joined the Marines and had the privilege of serving alongside some incredible people. But, I had to keep silent about my loved ones, because if I didn’t, I could be fired due to DADT, which was implemented in 1994.
By 2003, the stress of hiding my personal life started to take a toll. Although I had a group of friends who tried to deflect the rumors about me within the Marine Corps, it was too much. I began to have medical problems, like hypertension, despite my good health. That fall, I left active duty to attend graduate school. I thought if I waited long enough, the DADT policy would be repealed and I could serve openly.
In late 2007, while I was a police officer in the City of Los Angeles, I received a phone call from a colonel, who told me that I was being investigated for violating the DADT policy. Prior to joining the police department, I had started to share my story on how I had been affected by DADT. The act of sharing my story to others was the reason why I was being investigated. He read me my Article 31 rights, which is similar to the Miranda warning and gives a person the right against self-incrimination.
In 2008, I received my involuntary, honorable discharge paperwork. It was difficult for me to digest being told that I was no longer fit to serve even though I had served honorably. Little did I know the impact of that piece of paper. Since then, I have felt obligated to reveal and relive the nature of my discharge, for instance, in subsequent job interviews.
On September 20, 2011, the DADT policy was repealed. I decided not to reenlist because revisiting the trauma of being involuntarily discharged was difficult for me. Even if I wanted to reenlist, I would not have been able to because of that piece of paper. It would take me another 4 years before I applied for disability benefits because I didn’t want to deal with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Despite all this, I am one of the lucky ones. There are so many others who received other than honorable discharges, who don’t have the ability to access the benefits they earned.
Issuing new discharge paperwork and upgrading discharges for these veterans should be proactive and intentional. The Department of Defense should actively work to identify, investigate, and issue new discharge paperwork and upgrade eligible discharges.
The Department of Defense currently outlines three priorities: Defend the Nation; Succeed through Teamwork; and Take Care of Our People. Actively recharacterizing these discharges is one of the ways the military can show that they take care of their people.
Julianne ‘Jules’ Sohn (she/they) is the supervisor and LGBTQ+ liaison of the Los Angeles Police Department Community Relations Section and a Marine Corps veteran who was involuntarily discharged due to their sexual orientation under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in 2008. Sohn is a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit brought by a group of LGBTQ+ veterans against the U.S. Department of Defense over ongoing discrimination perpetuated by their discharge papers.
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