More than four years after the military’s discriminatory policies against gay and lesbian service members ended, veterans advocates say the Pentagon has not done enough to help the roughly 80,000 troops kicked out of the services for being gay since World War II.
"After 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' was repealed, most people thought the issue was over," said Peter Perkowski, legal director of the non-profit group Outserve.
But the ordeal's not over for those who lost their jobs because they were lesbian, bisexual or gay, he said.
"The undone work involves restoring their dignity, and restoring some of the veterans benefits that they’ve earned," Perkowski said.
Tens of thousands of veterans kicked out for their sexual orientation were discharged with less-than-honorable status from the military. They typically qualify for fewer benefits. For example, they may be ineligible for VA Health Care or the G.I. Bill, which helps pay education costs.
The Department of Defense has put policies in place to help such veterans. Troops kicked out explicitly for their sexuality can apply for upgrades to honorable status.
But some, like former Navy Hospital Corpsman Veronika Fimbres, say the process is cumbersome.
Fimbres served stateside during the Vietnam War. A transgender woman, she lived as a man at the time and said she had no concept of her sexuality in those young years. She did realize she was different and was constantly harassed by her peers. A Navy psychiatrist diagnosed her as "latent homosexual," and her military career ended.
"I was discharged 'General, Under Honorable Conditions,' although my work was exemplary and everything I did was honorable," Fimbres said, noting that she was merely "perceived" to be homosexual.
She’s applying for a discharge upgrade.
"There’s nothing like an Honorable Discharge. I would like one that’s suitable for framing to put on my wall to show that I served my country honorably—which I did," she said.
Her attorneys tell her she has a good shot at winning, though the appeal could take more than a year. Veterans must prove they were discharged for their sexual orientation, must produce documentation from their service which may be decades old, and often need a lawyer to get through the process.
The DOD declined to comment for this story through a spokesman.
Congressman Charlie Rangel, a New York Democrat, said the process is ridiculous.
"It was the government that committed the act of processing the person out with a Dishonorable Discharge,' he said. "The least we can do is correct it."
Rangel has introduced legislation to automatically upgrade discharges to "honorable" for all former service members kicked out under anti-gay policies.
His bill would also expand the criteria for those who qualify for an upgrade.
"If the reason they were discharged then for what the law today says is not a reason for a dishonorable discharge, then the discharge ought to be upgraded," he said.
The bill was first introduced in 2013 and has yet to come up for a vote.