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VA Secretary announces benefits for vets discharged under DADT

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell forced about 14,000 service members out of the military during the 17 years that the policy was in place

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Graphic via The Department of Veterans Affairs

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs announced Monday that LGBTQ veterans who were given ‘other-than-honorable discharges’ under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy before its repeal in 2011, will now be eligible for VA benefits, including health care, disability compensation, home loans and burial benefits.

Timing of the new policies was made to coincide with the anniversary of the repeal of DADT on Monday.

In a blog post Monday, Kayla Williams, the assistant secretary for public affairs in VA’s Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs wrote:

“At VA, we continuously work not only to meet the needs of LGBTQ+ Veterans, but also to address ongoing issues that LGBTQ+ Veterans face as a result of the military’s decades-long official policy of homophobia and transphobia,” Williams, who identifies as bisexual continued, “[…] LGBTQ+ Veterans are not any less worthy of the care and services that all Veterans earn through their service, and VA is committed to making sure that they have equal access to those services.”

Under the new guidance VA Secretary Denis McDonough sent to VA adjudicators on Monday, VA adjudicators, who decide whether to approve veterans’ claims for VA benefits, will no longer consider veterans ineligible because of their discharges for sexual orientation or gender identity, said Williams.

The VA will award a veteran his or her benefits unless the person’s military record shows another reason that he or she doesn’t qualify.

This policy statement does not represent a change in law, as Veterans who were discharged under DADT alone have been generally eligible for benefits under current statute and regulation. However, this policy reiterates what constitutes eligibility for benefits under law.

In addition, every ‘Character of Discharge’ case that is initially considered for denial will also get a second look before that action is taken. Given that large numbers of LGBTQ+ Veterans who were affected by previous homophobic and transphobic policies have not applied for a discharge upgrade due to the perception that the process could be onerous, “we are hopeful that this policy statement encourages more of them to contact VA to determine their eligibility for care and services,” Williams wrote.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell forced about 14,000 service members out of the military during the 17 years that the policy was in place. The policy was enacted under former President Bill Clinton’s administration in 1993, and it was repealed by former President Barack Obama on Sept. 20, 2011.

“Although VA recognizes that the trauma caused by the military’s decades-long policy of discrimination against LGBTQ+ people cannot be undone in a few short months, the Biden administration and Secretary McDonough are taking the steps necessary to begin addressing the pain that such policies have created,” Williams said.

“Given that large numbers of LGBTQ+ veterans who were affected by previous homophobic and transphobic policies have not applied for a discharge upgrade due to the perception that the process could be onerous, we are hopeful that this policy statement encourages more of them to contact VA to determine their eligibility for care and services,” she added.

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Military Special

Breaking the silence: 10 years after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

A special program exploring the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the fight to repeal it and how it continues to affect those who serve

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The Military Women's Memorial at the gateway entrance to Arlington National Cemetery (Photo Credit: Military Women's Memorial)

ARLINGTON – This year marks the 10 year anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. This change in legislation allowed countless lesbian, gay and bisexual servicemembers to serve openly, but the negative effects of the policy continue to affect veterans today.

The Military Women’s Memorial put on a special program exploring the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the fight to repeal it and how it continues to affect those who serve. MG (R) Tammy Smith joins to discuss her career, how she lived her life under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military and her advocacy to repeal the policy.

The program also explores how the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy continues to impact people’s lives. The program Saturday, October 2, 2021, is moderated by Jennifer Dane, Air Force veteran and president of the Modern Military Association of America.

Breaking the Silence: 10 Years After “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

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Military Special

LGBTQ Vets with ‘less than honorable’ discharges will receive VA benefits

This will extend medical care, disability payouts, employment assistance & other benefits previously blocked

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The United States Department of Veterans Affairs Washington D.C. (Photo Credit: GSA)

TYSONS CORNERS, Va. – Sources within the United States Department of Veterans Affairs have told Military Times this week that tens of thousands of LGBTQ veterans who were discharged from the U.S. armed services over the past seventy years, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, will soon be able to receive full Veterans Affairs benefits.

In an article published Friday, Military Times White House Bureau Chief and Veterans Affairs correspondent Leo Shane III reported that an official announcement is set for sometime Monday, the tenth anniversary of the repeal of the ‘Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell’ law signed by then President Obama.

U.S. Veteran’s Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough has made a commitment to honoring the service of LGBTQ Veterans pledging to make the VA a place that “welcomes all veterans, including women, veterans of color, and LGBTQ veterans.” 

In a Pride month speech this past June at the Orlando VA Healthcare System’s 11th Annual Pride Month Celebration, the Secretary highlighted the record of the first Gay man to openly challenged the military ban on LGBTQ service, Technical Sergeant Leonard Phillip Matlovich, United States Air Force:

For generations, service members who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or related identities faced brazen discrimination or even worse—not just in our Armed Forces, but in so many aspects of their lives. They lived in fear—of shunning, of violence, of having their lives turned upside down. And when it came to putting on the uniform and serving our country, they feared being denied that higher calling, too, simply because of who they were and who they loved.

When I think of those injustices, I think of Leonard Matlovich. Leonard Matlovich was a Vietnam War Veteran, a recipient of the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, and a gay man who came out to the military and the world by appearing on the cover of TIME magazine in 1975.

He quickly became a symbol of defiance and freedom for so many LGBTQ+ people in America. He was also quickly issued an Other Than Honorable discharge from the Armed Forces, despite twelve years of decorated service.

Years later, after Matlovich passed, his grave became a rallying site for LGBTQ+ servicemembers everywhere. Instead of his name, he chose to inscribe his gravestone with a short phrase: “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

The Secretary made it clear that the VA bureaucracy is capable of implementing this new policy although Shane noted that individuals with dishonorable discharges or clear criminal history documented in their service records will still not be granted benefits under the new plan.

The new move will extend VA medical care, disability payouts, employment assistance and other benefits individuals previously blocked because of other-than-honorable discharges.

Department legal officials believe the change will not require any new legislative action or policy statements, because the department already has broad authority to interpret which veterans are eligible for department services, the Military Times reported.

During his Pride speech in Orlando, also addressed healthcare concerns for LGBTQ veterans, especially Trans vets:

“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives. Due in part to minority stress, LGBTQ+ Veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community, but they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination. This perpetuates a cycle in which LGBTQ+ individuals have lower rates of access to preventive care services, utilize health care services less frequently, and have more negative experiences with health care.

That’s unacceptable. And at VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show Veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly, and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing.”

Further details are expected Monday as the Biden White House is also expected to mark the ending of DADT ten years ago. President Biden, who was Vice-President at the time has made LGBTQ equality rights a priority of his administration.

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Military Special

Epic journey for General Leah Lauderback; surviving DADT to Space Force

For an openly out woman like Lauderback, the role as head of intelligence for a U.S. military service holds special significance.

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Leah Lauderback (Photo courtesy USAF)

ARLINGTON, Va. – You might not know it, but there’s a role for the U.S. Space Force in Afghanistan. It could well be one of the many topics Maj. Gen. Leah Lauderback, director of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for the USSF, is briefed on each morning when she comes into her office at the Pentagon.

Lauderback, speaking last week with the Washington Blade’s chief political correspondent Chris Johnson, said that speaks to the role of the newly minted service as primarily a “space-enabling capability.”

“You can’t do anything with your iPhone as an example, with your computer, with the GPS in your car without those space-enabling capabilities,” Lauderback said. “And so that truly is our role in Afghanistan, to support the United States contingent that is there today, and that’s through our GPS capabilities or communications capabilities.”

Lauderback assumed the role as head of the office overseeing intelligence for U.S. Space Force last year shortly after the previous administration created it. With a record of intelligence-gathering roles in her three decades of serving in the U. S. Air Force, the sister service to the Space Force, Lauderback is a natural fit for the crucial position in the new service.

Maj. Gen. Leah Lauderback (Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force)

Still technically serving in the Air Force, Lauderback said she intends to leave the role next summer for a Guardian (the term bestowed to service members in the Space Force), and was chosen for the current role because she was a senior intelligence officer at the U.S. Space Command. Lauderback, nonetheless, said she was eager to take on those duties for a new service because she found the work “fascinating.”

“There is a lot of activity that is happening on orbit, and it’s not all good activity, right?” she said. “There are threats that present themselves almost on a daily basis. And so we were very busy, one, standing up to command at that time but then doing operational missions on a daily basis to compete with other near-peer competitors out there as well as to mitigate areas where we were in trouble from a threat perspective.”

One example Lauderback identified as a recent achievement came last year when a Russian satellite got very close to a U.S. satellite, and Gen. John Raymond, now commanding officer of U.S. Space Force, was able to push out into the media that the United States was concerned it was a Russian weapons system. The incident, Lauderback said, demonstrated U.S. capability to “call out the bad behavior and unprofessional behavior we thought of Russia.”

For an openly out woman like Lauderback, the role as head of intelligence for a U.S. military service holds special significance. Such a position would have been out of reach for an openly gay person in years past, when more LGBTQ people were closeted and the pervasive view was employing them in intelligence roles would be a national security threat if they were blackmailed.

Lauderback, who served when the military asked applicants whether or not they were homosexual and barred those who responded “yes,” recognizes the importance of an openly gay woman now heading up an entire office of intelligence for a U.S. military service.

“It’s really very significant that the fact that I can be out means that nobody can hold this over my head and I can serve openly and be the best intelligence officer that I could possibly be,” she said.

But it took a while to get there. Lauderback graduated from college in 1993, when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” became the law of the land, and has had assignments in the military since that time as she continued to pursue advanced degrees. Under that law, Lauderback had to keep quiet about being a lesbian or risk being discharged.

“Certainly, when I first came out — and I was really enjoying my job, and I wanted to make the Air Force a career — but every day it was a concern, and absolutely made me untruthful at times, which is so embarrassing to say and humiliating at this point,” Lauderback said. “I had to lie at times. I was still hidden as a gay member in the service, but I trudged through that.”

Lauderback said during the years under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” she became “less and less paranoid” and was able to find a friend at every base where she was stationed that she could trust with the truth about her sexual orientation. Those friends, she said, supported her on base and when she went on deployment.

Things changed in September 2011. After former President Barack Obama signed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal, the U.S. military certified it was ready to allow openly gay people in its ranks. The long ban was over and Lauderback was no longer forced to keep being gay a secret.

“I, like many others I’m sure, wept a little bit,” she said. “We had the conversations with friends about how different this was going to be, and it was very different. Immediately I felt the weight off my shoulders, immediately I knew that I had recourse if I felt that I was going to be discriminated against at any point in time, I felt that I knew I could go and make a complaint about things.”

Since that time, Lauderback married her spouse, Brenda Hall. The two have been happily married for years, Lauderback said.

Brenda Hall and Leah Lauderback (Photo courtesy U.S. Air Force)

But nearly 10 years since “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was lifted, and shortly after transgender service members were allowed to begin service after President Joe Biden reversed the previous administration’s ban, Lauderback said issues for LGBTQ service members remain and many gay service members are still afraid to come out.

For that reason, Lauderback in March helped set up the LGBTQ Initiatives Team for the Air Force and Space Force, one of the barrier-analysis working groups ordered by senior leadership. Five months later, Lauderback said the task force continues to have conversations with leadership about policies, such as wording and terminology, that make people feel unwelcome in service.

“This barrier-analysis working group is really kind of grassroots,” Lauderback said. “While there are a few of us that are of higher rank on the team, it is mostly made up of folks that are much younger, have very different experiences than we do. And so, they are uncovering what are those barriers, those unconscious biases that folks have … and identifying those areas that we can start knocking out.”

One example of a change Lauderback said the team would “love to see” is the use of pronouns in some of the signature blocks in communications from service members.

“It is well known and well practiced outside of the military in the public sphere, but within the government, I don’t think anybody’s actually brought it up to the senior leadership,” Lauderback said. “If you could use a pronoun, and especially if it’s for transgender members, it could be for women, it could be for somebody who doesn’t have a Westernized name, it was really nice to be able to say, you know, in my signature block ‘she, her, hers.’”

Lauderback said her team is working through that change and thinks “we’ll be successful at some point.”

Meanwhile, Lauderback continues to wear her main hat as head of intelligence for Space Force, for which she manages the delivery of intelligence to the secretary of the Air Force and the chief of space operations and ensures analysts are adhering to the framework for rules in gathering intelligence.

“There’s just a lot of two steps forward, one step back type of potential, where you need to have facility space or you need to have — if it’s IT equipment and things like that,” she said. “And you have to hire people. So, we’re still making all of that happen in our directorate and across the entire enterprise, but I think we’re in a really good position, and certainly for the Space Force as it continues to mature, continues to grow.”

Space is made up of, well, mostly empty space, as any scientist will tell you. However, that adage is becoming incrementally less true as entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk, continue to launch private satellites into orbit in numbers that could surpass the nearly 2,000 belonging to the United States. Starlink, the SpaceX program that manages its satellites, has 300 satellites in orbit — and has signaled plans for an eventual goal to deploy a total of 30,000 or more.

Lauderback, asked if that was a threat or should be welcomed, downplayed any concern of private companies surpassing U.S. government presence in space, saying the entrepreneurial endeavors would lower overall costs for launching satellites.

“It’s very much something to be welcomed, and we see it as a positive,” Lauderback said. “And I know Gen. Raymond as the CSO has remarked on this a number of times. What happens when you have commercial entities like this one, they’re able to operate sometimes at a much faster pace than we can in the government, so we want to be able to take advantage of that and then secondly, they truly drive the price point down for us.”

Launching astronauts into space remains an exciting event, including the prospect of sending the next human spaceflight to the Moon, and the first-ever landing on Mars. Lauderback, however, said she couldn’t comment directly because those projects are part of NASA’s domain.

“I would say, from my perspective as an intelligence officer,” Lauderback said, “when there is more exploration in space, as there has been on every other domain — the air domain or land domain or the maritime domain — the Department of Defense needs to be prepared to protect and defend our capabilities … so as an intelligence officer that’s really part of my job is to watch what it is that other countries might be doing or what their desires and their intentions are.”

While transporting human beings to other worlds continues to be an aspiration, questions have arisen recently about whether other worlds are sending living beings to Earth amid new interest in government reports on UFOs. U.S. intelligence over the summer revealed 140 sightings by American military pilots between 2004 and 2021 — and the Pentagon has no idea what they’re seeing.

Lauderback, asked what she makes of the findings given her position as head of space intelligence, declined to comment directly on what she makes of the phenomena, citing an ongoing study in other military services, although she quibbled with the use of the term “UFOs” to describe them.

“I would say it’s not UFOs, but it’s unidentified aerial phenomena,” Lauderback said. “So I key in on the term aerial in that case. I’ll leave it to the folks that are operating in the air domain and we’re working in the space domain, so I think that’s about all that I would be able to tell you.”

U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Leah Lauderback, Col. Carmelia Scott-Skillern and Lt. Col. Donna Sims pose for a photo with other attendees during a Sisters in Arms forum Oct. 25, 2017, at the Zone 1 Chapel. The forum allowed female leaders to speak to junior service women about mentorship opportunities and accomplishing goals. (U.S. Army photo by Justin Graff, 401st Army Field Support Brigade PAO)

Luke Schleusener, president of Out of National Security, an affinity group for LGBTQ staffers in national security, said the absence of any backlash to an out lesbian in Lauderback’s position “tells us how far much of the country has come in the decade since the repeal of DADT.”

“She’ll bring her whole self to work,” Schleusener said. “At a time of ‘resurgent great power competition,’ having diverse teams and diverse leaders will make the Space Force more effective. It’s also a matter of our government and our military best serving the nation when our public servants and service members reflect those they’re sworn to serve, at all levels.”

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