Elaine Rodriguez was 23 years old when Navy investigators first confronted her about her sexuality in 1990. He managed how he knew by denying it.
Rodriguez still didn’t have friends and family, much less the military. Gay and lesbian military personnel then could not serve and spread a mere rumor commonly referred to as “witch hunts”. In Rodriguez’s case, that’s exactly what followed..
“I had a civilian girlfriend at the time. They told me her name. They told me the apartment complex she lived in,” Rodriguez told CBS News. “I just threw my hands in the air, and I just said, ‘You know what, yeah, it’s all true’.”
Rodriguez is one of thousands of gay and lesbian service members who were kicked out of the military with a less-than-honorable discharge — victims of discrimination who continue to fight to regain their honor, a CBS News investigation found.
Leaving the military without an honorable discharge leaves more than just an emotional scar. For thousands, that means no VA benefits and no GI Bill to pay for college There are official channels for seniors to apply for what is called a discharge upgrade, thoughThe process can be difficult and often unsuccessful.
New York Democrat US Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand said the military is not doing enough to address its history of discrimination.
“We should be reaching out to those veterans in any way we can to make sure they know that if they want their earned benefits, if they want to be honorably discharged, there’s a path and a process to do that and that we’re going to fight for them. Will,” Gillibrand told CBS News.
Rodriguez’s discharge paper, known as a DD-214, listed the reason for his separation as “misconduct commission of a felony” — words he still says sting. “It makes me think I’m a criminal.”
In the years after leaving the Navy, Rodriguez continues to suffer the consequences of an honorable discharge while rejecting the possibility of enrolling in the police academy and fulfilling a new dream.
“I can’t get a government job, I can’t be a police officer because of my DD-214, yes. They messed up my life,” she said.
The way the military handles sexual orientation has changed dramatically since Rodriguez’s discharge. A policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” drummed up an estimated 14,000 LGBTQ service members from 1994 to 2010 before being unconstitutional and repealed.
Leon Panetta, the defense secretary who oversaw the withdrawal in 2011, admitted to CBS News last month, “There hasn’t been a lot of thought about the people who are going to be released, who are going to go through hell on this issue. : ‘What are we going to do about them?’ And in some ways I regret it.”
Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the number of veterans targeted for their sexuality is significant: about 100,000 since World War II.
Attorney Christy Vagello is the director of a pro bono discharge upgrade program run by the Veterans Consortium. His biggest concern is the lack of awareness among these veterans that a discharge upgrade is even possible. Of the 1,200 requests he receives each month, less than 1% are from LGBTQ veterans. “That’s what worries me. I know they’re out there,” she said.
There are also issues with the discharge upgrade process, which Vagello and other veterans say is nearly impossible without the help of a lawyer. Although the Pentagon told CBS News veterans can fill out a simple two-page application and don’t need legal representation, Vagello said it’s not that simple. In his experience, veterans have a less than 1 in 3 success rate when applying without legal counsel.
Elaine Rodriguez learned first hand. In 2017 he applied to have his discharge changed to “honorable” but was granted only partial relief in the form of a “general” discharge. The Board for Correction of Naval Records wrote in their decision that “members did not intend to elevate the discharge to honorable because the NJP (non-judicial punishment) included a charge of making a false official statement.” A board member recommended that they deny his request altogether. And the language that stings the most — “misconduct commission of a serious crime” — hasn’t changed either.
“I just don’t understand. It seems to me, what did I do so wrong?” Dr. Rodriguez.
The Navy told CBS News it could not comment on Rodriguez’s case, citing privacy reasons.
Sen. Gillibrand has been trying for years to force the Pentagon to act on a bipartisan bill called the Restore Honor to Servicemembers Act. Among its provisions is a mandate to assemble a team that will identify and reach out to all veterans who may be victims of this discriminatory policy.
“They’re going to have to try really, really hard. And that’s something that this bill can create a willingness to do,” Gillibrand said. “DOD continues to fight us every step of the way. …If they want to do it, it will be done.”
Ultimately, though, he says the pressure really needs to come from the top.
“It makes a big difference if you have a champion in the White House. So if this becomes something that President Biden actually wants to accomplish during his time in the White House, it will make it easier,” he said. “And I’m hopeful that with his help we can get it done.”
In an earlier statement to CBS News, the Defense Department said it had “conducted several outreach campaigns to inform all veterans who believe they have been wronged or wronged to correct their military records,” adding that it had also “launched a separate letter campaign. ” , mailing more than 2,000 letters to individuals who may be adversely affected by DADT (“don’t ask, don’t tell”) policies.”
Elaine Rodriguez hopes to find an independent lawyer to take her case and try again.