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Veterans Discharged Under 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' Get A Chance For VA Benefits

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Ten years ago today, then-President Obama repealed "don't ask, don't tell," a rule which banned LGBTQ troops from serving openly. But changing the rule did not undo the damage it caused. Over the years, as many as 100,000 military veterans had been kicked out of the service for their sexuality, and many of them were denied benefits from the VA. Today, the White House announced actions to address that. NPR's veterans correspondent Quil Lawrence is here to tell us more.

Hi, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So, Quil, what was the announcement out of the White House today?

LAWRENCE: It was a virtual event that was marking 10 years since the repeal of don't ask, don't tell. And Kayla Williams, who was an assistant VA secretary, spoke very personally about this publicly for the first time. She said that she herself had hid her sexual orientation while she was serving in Iraq, and then she announced this change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAYLA WILLIAMS: And service members who have an other than honorable discharge due solely to their sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status should be considered veterans who may be eligible for VA benefits, including disability compensation and burial.

FADEL: OK, Quil, that was pretty jargony. What does that mean?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. It's - the jargon lets you know that you are actually dealing with the VA authentically, right? Veterans who got bad paper other than honorable discharges were very often denied benefits - mental health benefits, not to mention all the kinds of financial support - disability, GI Bill, college money and home loans - over those years. Now, the nitty gritty is that the VA does not need to change the law to do this. All they've needed was a directive from the VA secretary from the White House to start accepting and processing vets who were kicked out specifically because of their sexual orientation. So the White House is essentially telling the VA staff all around the country, start signing these vets up, and give them benefits.

FADEL: So have you spoken to any vets? What are they saying?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. I spoke with Lindsay Church, who is a Navy vet who co-founded Minority Veterans of America and was involved in pushing on this issue. And she was talking about why this was still needed even 10 years later.

LINDSAY CHURCH: Even to overturn the policy wasn't enough to undo the harm and the damage that was done. So many of our siblings in arms who were criminalized for their behavior have dishonorable or other than honorable discharges as a result and have never been able to access those benefits. And so this moment is life-changing for so many people. Over a hundred thousand people, you know, since World War II have been discharged for being nothing more than queer.

LAWRENCE: And Church talked about veterans over the years who maybe had been sexually assaulted in the military and then kicked out - oftentimes if that was a man who assaulted another man - and then the trap of trying to deal with the lasting trauma of being assaulted with no help from the VA, which, for all its faults, does understand the circumstances of military sexual trauma. And we on NPR have interviewed people over the years who lived with that trauma and ended up with having problems with substance abuse, and there's even links to suicide among veterans because of this issue.

FADEL: Now, this is just guidance to VA staff that they should start letting these people in the door, right? So how do we know this is working, or how will we know?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. Well, I asked the VA earlier today. They didn't get back to me in time for airtime about whether there's some sort of awareness campaign they're going to push. I mean, many of the neediest vets in this category probably didn't watch the White House YouTube event.

FADEL: Right.

LAWRENCE: But we expect to see veterans advocates making sure - and Congress trying to hold the VA accountable to make sure they do actually legitimize these people's service.

FADEL: NPR's Quil Lawrence covers veterans.

Thank you so much for your reporting.

LAWRENCE: Thanks, Leila.

FADEL: And we'd like to note if you're a veteran and you need help, you can call the Veterans Crisis Line - 1-800-273-8255. Press 1 if you're a vet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.