Sept. 20, 2023, marked the 12th anniversary of the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that was effective from Feb. 28, 1994, to Sept. 20, 2011.
Sept. 20, 2011, was “a historic day for the Department of Defense that made our military stronger,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said at a Pentagon news briefing Sept. 20.
Hicks also said the Defense Department is now working to upgrade veterans’ discharges that were less than honorable as a result of the policy.
DOD Instruction 1304.26, widely known as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy,” prohibited military personnel from discriminating against or harassing non-heterosexual service members who did not reveal their sexual orientation, while barring openly LGBTQ+ persons from military service.
Some LGBTQ+ service members were given discharges that may have resulted in denied access to veterans’ benefits — including home loans, health care, GI Bill tuition assistance and even some government jobs, she said.
Since the repeal, DOD has helped eligible veterans discharged because of their sexual orientation access the benefits they deserve. More than four out of five veterans who’ve applied for discharge upgrades or records corrections have been successful — but others might not have taken the opportunity, she said.
Hicks said some veterans haven’t gotten their discharges upgraded because:
- The application process was harder to navigate than it is today.
- They’re worried about whether they would be treated with dignity and respect after the painful experiences suffered.
- They didn’t know it was an option.
Over the last two-plus years, DOD has worked to make the process easier, she said, explaining steps the department has taken.
The department is re-doubling its outreach to LGBTQ+ veterans discharged under “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” to encourage anyone who might be eligible to apply for corrections to their military records, including to their discharge paperwork, she said.
This outreach campaign will be online, by mail, through nonprofits and veterans service organizations, and other avenues. It starts today with a new online resource [https://www.defense.gov/Spotlights/Dont-Ask-Dont-Tell-Resources/], which will be continuously updated with relevant information, she said.
There will be more information, including on podcasts and webinars, explaining how the process works and encourage those who aren’t sure if they’re eligible to consider applying, she said.
Also, beginning Sept. 20, 2023, DOD will, for the first time, begin proactively reviewing the military records of veterans discharged because of their sexual orientation to identify those who may be eligible for discharge upgrades, but haven’t yet applied, Hicks said.
DOD will first identify veterans discharged during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” period and then take steps to retrieve their relevant military records, for example from the National Archives. After a preliminary review and an assessment that an upgrade in discharge may be warranted, DOD will transmit the names to the service secretaries for consideration and potential correction through the Military Department Boards for Correction of Military/Naval Records.
DOD will seek to collaborate with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Archives in cases where they might have digitized records that can help expedite the review, she said.
“When we find indications that someone’s less-than-honorable discharge was due to their sexual orientation, we’ll put their name forward to their respective military department’s review board for consideration,” Hicks said.
This will be done with measures to preserve the privacy and dignity of each veteran, she added.
Even as DOD begins these systematic records reviews, it may not catch everyone who’s eligible. For instance, if someone’s military records or discharge papers don’t say why they stopped serving, then it might be hard to discern whether Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a factor, she said.
Hicks encouraged everyone to visit the new webpage, Spotlight: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Resources, and share it with others.
“We know correcting these records cannot fully restore the dignity taken from LGBTQ+ service members when they were expelled from the military. It doesn’t completely heal the unseen wounds that were left. It doesn’t make people whole again, even for those many who received honorable discharges.
“But this is yet another step we’re taking to make sure we do right by those who served honorably despite being forced to hide who they are and who they love while serving the country they love. Even if the department didn’t see it then, we see it now,” she said.