U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal stood Tuesday beside the State Veterans Memorial to promote legislation intended to assist LGBTQ+ veterans who were denied critical benefits as a result of less than honorable military discharges stemming from their sexual orientations.
Blumenthal, along with Sens. Cory Booker, D-NJ, and Jeff Merkley, D-OR, have proposed to create a commission to investigate discriminatory military practices and draft recommendations to assist veterans and service members impacted by those policies.
“For much too long — in fact, decades — our United States military targeted for discrimination LGBTQ+ servicemembers and veterans,” Blumenthal said during an early afternoon press conference in Hartford. “The discrimination against them was severe, ongoing. They were forced to hide their sexual orientation or they were prevented from joining the military and often they were discharged with bad papers.”
Between 1994 and 2011, the military prevented openly gay and lesbian individuals from serving under a policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which replaced a longstanding prohibition non-heterosexual servicemembers by essentially forcing them to keep their sexual orientations secret.
“These are people that sacrificed their ability to live openly, their ability to love who they love,” Anthony DiLizia, a Stonington Army veteran, said during the press event. “They sacrificed their personal freedom so they could protect the freedoms of those who chose to discriminate against them.”
Between World War II and 2011, some 114,000 veterans were discharged from the military due to their sexual orientation, according to Blumenthal’s office. In many cases the circumstances of those discharges have prevented the impacted veterans from receiving benefits normally afforded to prior service members — benefits like health care, home loans, and college assistance.
“The discrimination of this population meant that veterans couldn’t take advantage of the GI Bill. They couldn’t begin to build generational wealth and couldn’t receive basic mental and physical health interventions,” Johanna Schubert of West Hartford Pride said. “They missed out on the many ways this country says ‘Thank you’ to its veterans.”
Last month, the Department of Defense marked the 12th anniversary of the congressional repeal of DADT by highlighting the agency’s outreach efforts to upgrade the discharge classifications of veterans separated from the military due to their sexual orientation.
The department also announced plans to proactively begin reviewing records to identify veterans who may be eligible for an upgrade. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said the efforts represented a step toward righting a longstanding injustice.
“We know correcting these records cannot fully restore the dignity taken from LGBTQ+ service members when they were expelled from the military,” Hicks said. “It doesn’t completely heal the unseen wounds that were left.”
Blumenthal said the DoD review would take time and the agency’s remedies may prove inadequate to address the needs of many impacted veterans and military members. The commission contemplated in his bill would propose an expedited review as well as potential other steps like more welcoming military enlistment policies.
The group may also review housing policies and consider reimbursing vets who were denied college assistance under the GI Bill as a result of less than honorable discharges under the old policies, he said.
“I think there is an urgency to making sure that less than honorable discharges — bad paper discharges — are in fact reviewed and corrected and now-serving … members of the United States military are treated with the fairness they deserve,” Blumenthal said.