4 years after the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' much is left undone

Veronika Fimbres was kicked out the Navy with a less-than-Honorable Discharge in 1974 after a doctor diagnosed her as a
Veronika Fimbres was kicked out the Navy with a less-than-Honorable Discharge in 1974 after a doctor diagnosed her as a "latent homosexual." She later served as the Chair of Veterans Affairs for the City of San Francisco, and has filed an appeal asking the Defense Department to upgrade her discharge.
Photo courtesy of Veronika Fimbres

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More than four years after the military’s discriminatory policies against gay and lesbian service members ended, veteran advocates say the U.S. Department of Defense has not done enough to help the roughly 80,000 troops kicked out of the services for being gay since World War 2.

"After 'don’t ask, don’t tell' was repealed, most people thought the issue was over," said Peter Perkowski, legal director of the non-profit group Outserve.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. 

Anyone with a less-than-Honorable Discharge experiences some degradation of benefits—from a loss of the G.I. Bill for those with a General Discharge, to a loss of health care, to a complete loss of all benefits for those with a Dishonorable Discharge.

Tens of thousands of veterans kicked out for their sexual preference were discharged with less-than-honorable status from the military. The DOD has put policies in place to help such veterans. Anyone kicked out explicitly for their sexuality has the option of applying for an upgrade 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, constantly subjected to harassment 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 over 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 (Dem, NY) said the process is ridiculous.

"It was the government that committed the act of processing the person out with a Dishonorable Discharge, the least we can do is correct it," he said.

Rangel's 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. 

The 2011 DOD memo outlining eligibility disqualifies anyone with "aggravating factors" on their discharge papers—which could include anything from drug use and petty crimes, to refusing to wear a uniform and for sodomy. 

"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. 

"Investigators in all branches found ways to rid the military of well-performing good servicemembers who just happened to be gay lesbian or bisexual," Perkowski said. "And if you want to call that getting around Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, then yeah, that’s what happened."

Andrew Espinosa said he was one of those service members. 

In 1994, he was kicked out of the U.S. Air Force after kissing another man on the cheek. Espinosa denies the kiss; his accuser said the sexual contact was unwelcome. 

Espinosa said the underlying reason for his dismissal with a dishonorable discharge—the worst possible discharge—is that he is bisexual. 

"I think it just got convoluted," he said. 

It's unclear if he would qualify for an upgrade under Rangel's bill, and the congressman told KPCC that his legislation might not offer redress for vets like Espinosa. The bill was first introduced in 2013 and has yet to come up for a vote. 

Meanwhile, Espinosa said he's given up on his appeal. His attorneys told him his only option left is a presidential pardon. 

"I've recently just come to accept everything," Espinosa said. "It is what it is."

This story is a part of the American Homefront Project — a joint effort of KPCC, KUOW and WUNC — reporting on American military life and veterans.