by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Washington Senator Patty Murray, chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, met with Gay and Lesbian veterans on April 11 to discuss problems remaining after the repeal of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' (DADT).
'We worked hard to repeal DADT,' Murray said, 'but that's not the end of the story.'
According to the panelists who spoke with Murray, the rest of the story is that dealing with the U.S. Departments of Veterans Affairs (VA) can seem like a bureaucratic nightmare for LGBT veterans, especially for those who were discharged because of their sexual orientation before DADT was repealed.
The meeting with Murray was hosted by Louise Chernin of the Greater Seattle Business Association, in the GSBA's Capitol Hill office, and included:
o Admiral Allen Steinman, now retired, the highest-ranking out service member.
o Major Margaret Witt, who successfully sued the Defense Department to be reinstated to full rank and benefits,
o Derek Sparks, US Navy veteran, one of the plaintiffs in Cook v. Rumsfeld, challenging DADT, and
o Shaun Knittel, also a Navy veteran, and a board member of OutMilitary.com.
Equal Rights Washington executive director Rod Hearne also sat in on the discussion.
As a nurse, Major Witt was perhaps uniquely qualified to observe the impact of DADT repeal on veterans' benefits.
'I was amazed,' she said, 'to see so many Transgender patients at the V.A. One thing that disturbed me: when I came across the diagnosis 'personality disorder' in one [Transgender] patient's file.'
Steinman added, 'One senior project manager - I won't say who - told me there is a culture of homophobia in the VA. The VA won't be a safe place to LGBT vets until it's a safe place for LGBT employees.'
Knittel said he had put out a notice on OutMilitary.com - a networking site for LGBT service members and veterans - that he would be speaking with Murray, and asked for input from other veterans.
One problem, he said, was that 'many people have no idea what their benefits should be. If you got discharged [under DADT] they handed you a paper and said 'Sign this.' They didn't ask for questions. And many vets don't use their benefits because they feel uncomfortable going to the VA.'
'I was one of those people,' Sparks agreed. 'It was too painful to deal with the VA I knew I was entitled to the GI Bill and to medical benefits, but when I tried to get the benefits I always got the runaround.'
'I think that's tragic,' Knittel said.
'I agree,' Murray replied.
Another problem, all agreed, was changing 'general' discharges for people kicked out under DADT to 'honorable' discharges. Sparks said he had been turned down for employment because he had only a general discharge.
Witt added that after her discharge, the Air Force erased all her records. When she was reinstated and tried to get medical coverage, she was asked to prove that she had once served in the military.
'Finally I just told them 'Google me!' she grinned.
Another problem, Knittel said, was that same-sex couples cannot apply jointly for VA home loans, because the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prohibits federal agencies from recognizing their relationship.
'I know you know all about DOMA,' Knittel told Murray, 'so I won't repeat it, but now that we can have Gay and Lesbian servicemembers with partners, they still don't have all the benefits that other service members have, and for a state like this - where we guarantee rights for domestic partners - that puts the VA in conflict with state law.'
One of the challenges, Steinman said, was to find a way to deal with the remaining problems faced by LGBT veterans without having to go to a possibly reluctant Congress for legislative action.
'Any of the service secretaries could mandate a LGBT Special Emphasis Program,' he suggested. 'They could issue a manual on LGBT issues and require that VA services be sexual orientation neutral.'
Knittel suggested that the VA establish an LGBT Liaison tasked with educating vets about their benefits and making sure they are able to access them without bureaucratic stumbling blocks being put in their way.
'It's the same as if you were bullied in school,' Knittel continued. 'If you're a closeted Gay kid, you don't want to talk to just any counselor. But if you see a counselor with a rainbow flag on her mug, you might talk to her.'
'It could be a duty added to an existing position,' Steinman said. 'If it's a new position it would need additional funding and that requires Congress.'
'No one was thinking VA when we went after DADT,' Murray concluded. 'Now that we've repealed DADT, we have to administer the VA in a way that's consistent. Anybody who serves their country deserves to get the benefits we promised them.'
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