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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 21, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 51
Two US airmen sue Defense Secretary Jim Mattis
Section One
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Two US airmen sue Defense Secretary Jim Mattis

They were illegally discharged because of their HIV status, they say

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Two US airmen filed suit against Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on December 19, charging that they were illegally discharged from the service because they are HIV-positive.

The discharge orders violate the US Constitution's equal protection clause and federal law, the airmen say in court documents. They have asked a US District Court to reverse the Defense Department's decision.

Both active-duty airmen said they tested positive for HIV last year during Air Force screenings. After they started antiretroviral treatments, their doctors deemed them asymptomatic and physically fit to deploy, and their commanders backed their continued service, they said.

Both added that they intended to pursue lengthy Air Force careers after serving for more than half a decade in logistics and maintenance roles.

In November, however, the Defense Department notified the two that they had been deemed unfit for military service and would be discharged.

The US military bans personnel with HIV from deploying to the Middle East, where the majority of Air Force members are expected to go, and the pair were therefore judged 'undeployable.'

'Policies singling out service members living with HIV for starkly different treatment are an unfortunate vestige of a time when HIV was untreatable and invariably fatal,' the airmen argued in the complaint. 'These anachronistic policies are no longer justified in light of modern medical science.'

Scott Schoettes, a counsel at Lambda Legal representing the plaintiffs, said the ban is arbitrary and inconsistent with the current medical reality for those serving with HIV.

It is easy for such service members to bring sufficient supplies of medication on a deployment, Schoettes told the Washington Post. For most people living with HIV, medication renders the virus inconsequential to their daily lives, and the virus is suppressed to a degree that they no longer can transmit it to others, the complaint said.

'What we're really asking for here is that HIV be treated the same as any other medical condition in terms of evaluating whether or not you can deploy with it,' Schoettes said. 'It shouldn't be carved out and specifically categorized as 'you are non-deployable once you have this.'

In an interview with the Washington Post, one of the two plaintiffs, a 26-year-old maintenance airman from California, said he had already deployed twice to the Middle East, and his job didn't require him to leave the confines of a base where medical personnel were on hand. He expressed confidence that he would still be able to do his job there and elsewhere.

'It's disheartening to say the least,' the airman said. 'I know for a fact that I am very good. I know I'm good at what I do, and I'm not being afforded the opportunity to give the Air Force what I know I'm capable of doing.'

Since taking over at the Pentagon almost two years ago, Mattis has made it a priority to discharge service members unable to deploy, regardless of the reasons.

Known colloquially as 'deploy or get out,' his policy came into effect this fall. Under its guidelines, any service member who is deemed unable to deploy for 12 consecutive months will be evaluated for separation.

'You're either deployable, or you need to find something else to do. I'm not going to have some people deploying constantly and then other people, who seem to not pay that price, in the US military,' Mattis told reporters in February. 'If you can't go overseas [and] carry a combat load, then obviously someone else has got to go. I want this spread fairly and expertly across the force.'

A defense Department spokesperson said that 'the Air Force does not find all airmen with asymptomatic HIV unfit, and has returned more than 150 such airmen to duty.'

Airmen in career fields with a low possibility for deployment or who are unlikely to deploy because of rank or experience may be returned to duty, the spokesperson added, 'whereas airmen in career fields with a high possibility for deployment may be found unfit.'

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