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Exclusive: Pentagon to review cases of LGBTQ+ veterans denied honorable discharges under "don't ask, don't tell"

Pentagon works to restore honor to LGBTQ+ vets
Pentagon taking steps to restore honor to LGBTQ+ vets discharged during "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" 03:41

Thousands of LGBTQ+ veterans who were kicked out of the military because of their sexuality could see their honor restored under a new initiative the Defense Department announced Wednesday, on the 12th anniversary of the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" policy banning gays and lesbians from openly serving in the military.

Before the repeal of the ban, tens of thousands of LGBTQ+ service members were forced out of the military "under other than honorable conditions," rather than with an honorable discharge.

As CBS News documented in a nine-month investigation, many LGBTQ+ veterans found that without an honorable discharge, they were deprived of access to the full spectrum of veterans benefits, including VA loan programs, college tuition assistance, health care and some jobs. 

In a statement commemorating the anniversary of the repeal, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin acknowledged the military fell short in correcting the harms of its past policies against LGBTQ+ service members. 

"For decades, our LGBTQ+ Service members were forced to hide or were prevented from serving altogether," Austin said. "Even still, they selflessly put themselves in harm's way for the good of our country and the American people. Unfortunately, too many of them were discharged from the military based on their sexual orientation — and for many this left them without access to the benefits and services they earned." 

Since the ban was lifted, the military has allowed these LGBTQ+ veterans to try to secure an honorable discharge, but CBS News also found in its investigation that the military's existing process for this is complicated, emotionally taxing and places the burden on the veteran to prove there was discrimination. 

To help ease that burden, the Defense Department plans to conduct a review of veterans' records who served under "don't ask, don't tell" for a possible recommendation of a discharge upgrade. This means that these veterans would not have to apply for the upgrade themselves, a process that both veterans and experts have said is often unsuccessful without the help of a lawyer. The department is also launching a website Wednesday with resources dedicated to LGBTQ+ veterans who believe they were wrongfully discharged for their sexuality. 

Once the military completes its initial review of veterans' records who served during "don't ask, don't tell," a senior Pentagon official told CBS News it plans to begin looking at the records of veterans who served before that policy — by many accounts, a time of even greater discrimination against gay and lesbian service members. 

"Over the past decade, we've tried to make it easier for Service members discharged based on their sexual orientation to obtain corrective relief," Austin also said in his statement. "While this process can be difficult to navigate, we are working to make it more accessible and efficient." 

And he said that in the coming weeks, the military will start outreach campaigns to encourage service members and veterans who believe they suffered an injustice because of "don't ask, don't tell" to try to get their military records corrected.

While the full scope of past discrimination remains unknown due to the opaque nature of military records and the widespread use of cover charges to drum out gay and lesbian troops, figures obtained via Freedom of Information Act and shared with CBS News earlier this year revealed that more than 35,000 service members from 1980 to 2011 "received a discharge or separation because of real or perceived homosexuality, homosexual conduct, sexual perversion, or any other related reason." According to the most recent data available from the Pentagon, just 1,375 veterans have been granted relief in the form of a discharge upgrade or correction to their record.

Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) has been pushing the Pentagon to act since 2015 when he first introduced legislation to reinstate benefits for LGBTQ veterans discharged over their sexual orientation. He applauded Secretary Austin for the long overdue action.  

"People have been waiting a very, very long time for this," Schatz said. "If someone has the guts and the courage and the patriotism and the discipline to serve in the United States military, they ought to be treated, like a veteran when they are done. They ought to be given the honorable discharge and be entitled to the benefits,, that they've earned.

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