Less than 8 percent of veterans expelled from the military under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy have applied to upgrade their discharges to honorable or strip references to their sexual orientation from their record.
In the nearly five years since the repeal of the policy that banned gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, fewer than 1,000 people — out of the more than 13,000 people who were expelled — have sought corrections, according to data the military provided to The Associated Press.
Many veterans simply don't know it's an option, said Scott Thompson, executive director of the Board for Correction of Naval Records. The boards have always existed without a lot of internal or external advertisement, he said.
Veterans and the veterans' advocates agreed there's a lack of awareness but cited reasons why veterans wouldn't correct their record. They may be in jobs where they aren't affected by what the record says. Going to the board could open up old wounds. Or they may feel it's not worth the effort, or don't know where to start.
For Danny Ingram, the reference to his sexual orientation on the form is a badge of honor. Ingram was given an honorable discharge from the Army in 1994 as one of the first to be expelled under "don't ask, don't tell."
"I was victimized by that policy," said Ingram, of Atlanta, who is now 56. "I want that to remain so people in the future can see what was done to people, and that it was unjust."
"Don't ask, don't tell" didn't require that people be dishonorably discharged. It varied case by case, but if their commanders weren't pushing for a lower category and there were no mitigating factors, such as misconduct, the service member could be given an other-than-honorable or honorable discharge.
Honorably discharged veterans are entitled to benefits, such as medical care and a military burial, and can re-enlist if they meet eligibility requirements.
Jeremy Brooks was given an honorable discharge from the Navy in 2007 under the policy. He re-enlisted in 2011 after the full repeal. Currently serving in the Navy Reserve, Brooks said he considered trying to change the narrative that states "homosexual admission" because of the risk of bias anytime anyone sees it.
"You're handing it to them and telling them something about yourself without being able to choose when you're telling them," said Brooks, who is 39 and works in Washington, D.C.
Brooks said the idea of tackling it was overwhelming. Like Ingram, he didn't want that part of history erased from his record, as if his service under "don't ask, don't tell" didn't happen, so he didn't pursue a correction.
He thinks many veterans know about the process but were deeply wounded by their discharge and may be trying to forget that part of their lives.
Since the 2011 repeal, the Navy has reviewed about 430 cases, including from the Marines, and upgraded slightly more than 300 of the discharges. The Army has received nearly 300 applications from soldiers discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" or its predecessor policies and granted about 200 requests.
The Air Force reviewed about 150 similar cases and approved about 130 of the applications. The Coast Guard, which falls under the Department of Homeland Security, reviews far fewer cases, only eight since the repeal.
Some applications were denied because there were "aggravating factors," such as misconduct. Some were incomplete. About 65 cases are pending among the boards.
The Defense Department barred gays and lesbians from serving before "don't ask, don't tell." President Bill Clinton promised to lift the ban but compromised and authorized the policy in 1993. After that, they could serve but not be open about their sexual orientation, and personnel couldn't ask about it. The policy was widely criticized because thousands of people were discharged under it, and many others were forced into secrecy.
A bill in Congress would streamline the paperwork for applying for a correction and codify the Defense Department policy in statute. It would require the historians of each military service to review the circumstances of the estimated 100,000 service members discharged for their sexual orientation prior to "don't ask, don't tell" to improve the historical record.
Melvin Dwork was expelled from the Navy during World War II for being gay. He spent decades fighting what he called a "terrible insult" that had to be righted — a discharge characterized as "undesirable."
In 2011, the Navy agreed to change it to honorable. It was believed to be the first time the Pentagon had taken such a step on behalf of a WWII since the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell."
Dwork died last week at age 94.
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