Navy veteran fired for sexual orientation 33 years ago can’t clear his record

Elaine Rodriguez was 23 when Navy investigators first confronted her about her sexuality in 1990. She dealt with it the only way she knew how, by denying it.

Rodriguez hadn’t been out with her friends and family yet, let alone with the military. At the time, gay and lesbian servicemen could not serve, and a mere rumor could trigger what was commonly called a “witch hunt.” In Rodriguez’s case, that’s exactly what followed.

“I had a civilian girlfriend at the time. They told me her name. They told me what apartment complex she was living in,” Rodriguez told CBS News. “I just threw my hands up in the air, and I just said, ‘You know what, yeah, it’s all true.'”

Rodriguez is one of thousands of gay and lesbian service members who were kicked out of the military with less than honorable discharges — victims of discrimination who continued to fight to regain their honor, a CBS News investigation has revealed. .

Leaving the military without an honorable discharge left more than just an emotional scar. For thousands of people, that means no VA benefits and no GI bill to help pay for their education. Although there are official channels for veterans to request what is called a release upgrade, the The CBS News investigation revealed the process can be difficult and often fails.

US Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, said the military was not doing enough to tackle the history of discrimination.

“We should be reaching out to all of these veterans in every way we can to make sure they know that if they want the benefits they’ve earned, if they want to be honorably discharged, that there’s a way and a process to do that and that we will fight for them,” Gillibrand told CBS News.

Rodriguez’s discharge document, known as DD-214, lists the reason for her separation as “misconduct commission of a serious offense” – words she always says scathingly. “It makes me feel like a criminal.”

In the years since leaving the Navy, Rodriguez has continued to suffer the consequences of a less than honorable discharge when she was denied admission to the police academy and the opportunity to complete a new dream.

“I can’t get a government job, I can’t be a policewoman like I wanted because of my DD-214, yeah. They ruined my life,” she said.

There have been drastic changes in how the military handles sexual orientation since Rodriguez was released. A policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” beat about 14,000 LGBTQ service members from 1994 to 2010 before it was declared unconstitutional and repealed.

Leon Panetta, the Secretary of Defense who oversaw the repeal in 2011, admitted last month to CBS News, “not much thought was given to the people who were fired, who went through hell on this issue. , about: ‘What do we do with them?’ And in some ways, I regret that.”

Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, says the number of veterans targeted for their sexuality is significant: some 100,000 since World War II.

Lawyer Christie Bhageloe is the director of a pro bono remediation program run by the Veterans Consortium. His biggest concern is the lack of awareness among these veterans that an exit upgrade is even possible. Of the 1,200 inquiries it receives each month, less than 1% are from LGBTQ veterans. “That’s what worries me. I know they’re out there,” she said.

There are also issues with the release-leveling process itself, which Bhageloe and other veterans say is nearly impossible without the help of a lawyer. While the Pentagon has told CBS News veterans can fill out a simple two-page application and legal representation is not required, Bhageloe says it’s not that simple. In his experience, veterans have a success rate of less than 1 in 3 when applying without an attorney.

Elaine Rodriguez learned it firsthand. In 2017, she asked to have her discharge changed to “honourable”, but only got partial relief in the form of a “general” discharge. The Board for the Correction of Naval Records wrote in its decision “the members did not want to make the discharge honorable because the NJP (non-judicial punishment) included the charge of making a false official statement”. A board member recommended denying his request entirely. And the language that stings the most – “misconduct committing a serious offence” – hasn’t changed either.

“I just don’t get it. It just makes me want, what did I do so wrong?” Rodríguez said.

The Navy told CBS News it could not comment on Rodriguez’s case, citing confidentiality concerns.

Senator Gillibrand has been trying to force the Pentagon to act for years with a bipartisan bill called The Restore Honor to Service Members Acts. Among its provisions is a mandate to assemble a team that would identify and contact all veterans who may have been subject to these discriminatory policies.

“They really need to try much, much harder. And that’s something this bill could create the will to do,” Gillibrand said. “The DOD fought us every step of the way. … If they wanted this done, it would be done.”

Ultimately, she says the pressure really has to come from the top.

“If you have a champion in the White House, that makes a big difference. So if that becomes something that President Biden actually wants to accomplish during his White House, that will make it a lot easier,” she said. declared. “And I’m optimistic that with his help, we can make it happen.”

In an earlier statement to CBS News, the Department of Defense said it “has conducted several outreach campaigns to advise all veterans who believe they have suffered an error or injustice to seek correction of their military records,” adding that he has also launched “an individualized letter-writing campaign”. , sending more than 2,000 letters to people who may have been harmed by the DADT (“don’t ask, don’t tell”) policy.”

Elaine Rodriguez hopes to find a pro bono attorney to take on her case and try again.


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