DAV-funded program helps veteran discharged for being gay

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Jim Carlsen is a Marine Corps veteran, attorney and the director of business operations for The Veterans Consortium. The nonprofit organization’s pro bono Discharge Upgrade Program is funded by the DAV Charitable Service Trust.

For nearly four decades, Marine Corps veteran Terry Moylan lived with the crushing weight of resentment, a burden that never should have been hers to carry.

Moylan enlisted in the Marines in 1981, wide-eyed and ready to serve her country. By 1983, she was discharged under other than honorable (OTH) conditions, with “commission of a homosexual act” listed on her DD214.

Moylan said a woman she was dating was under investigation and that the homosexual act in question was Moylan’s arm around someone at a party. The so-called evidence, or lack thereof, didn’t matter.

“[The investigations] were witch hunts,” Moylan said.

In 2021, 10 years after the repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and 37 years after she was kicked out of the service, Moylan had her discharge upgraded to honorable. She did so with the help of The Veterans Consortium’s pro bono Discharge Upgrade Program.

“It was almost like a 500-pound weight was lifted off my shoulders,” she said. “I just carried around all that baggage for all those years.”

Since 2019, the upgrade program has been fully supported by a $1 million grant from the DAV Charitable Service Trust. It has helped nearly 6,000 veterans since its inception in 2016. A successful upgrade restores a veteran’s access to health care and other benefits. The program has an 80% success rate.

“DAV is proud to support a program that helps veterans take back the respect and dignity of military service when it was unfairly cut short,” said National Adjutant Marc Burgess. “Policies that wrongly excluded and harmed gay and lesbian service members may be in the past, but their painful consequences persist. The Discharge Upgrade Program is a way to rectify those injustices.”

Jim Carlsen, the consortium’s director of business operations, said the vast majority of the program’s cases involve veterans who received OTH discharges due to misconduct ultimately related to trauma or mental illness that stemmed from military service. A very small fraction of the program’s caseload involves those discharged due to homosexuality.

That’s surprising, Carlsen said, noting that the 2011 repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” was a clear reversal of the military’s previous stance that “homosexuality was incompatible with military service.”

“Our expectation was that we would have seen a flood of applicants” after that reversal, Carlsen said. “But we haven’t.”

More than 13,000 service members were discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell” between 1993 and 2011, according to 2016 data reported by the Associated Press. That doesn’t account for the thousands of others discharged under earlier policies.

Carlsen said it’s hard to know how many of those discharges were other than honorable and therefore more likely to prompt someone to seek an upgrade. And in some cases, there may be aggravating circumstances, like misconduct, that might make someone ineligible for an upgrade.

But if a service member received an OTH discharge based solely on sexuality, Carlsen said it’s an easy win.

“You can get those upgraded very quickly,” he said.

Carlsen speculated that many veterans may not be aware that they can request to have their discharge upgraded. Others may be put off by the prospect of digging up old and painful memories.

Moylan said her experience of being kicked out of the Marines—which followed a formal investigation and hearing—was nothing short of traumatizing.

“It was humiliating,” she said.

When Moylan returned home in 1983, she battled depression and anxiety, turning to drugs and alcohol to cope. She wouldn’t even tell people she was a veteran.

“I had this huge resentment against the Marine Corps,” she said. “It was almost like I was at a 35-year bottom.”

Moylan eventually got sober and into therapy. With an honorable discharge, she was able to access health care benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

On Sept. 21, 2021, the VA issued new guidance instructing benefits claims adjudicators to find that any veteran discharged due to sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status be eligible for VA benefits, as long as there is nothing else barring the veteran from receiving benefits.

But Carlsen said a discharge upgrade can be life-changing for veterans, not just because of benefits.

“A constant theme here is the veterans wanting to really clear their name and to show that they honorably served their country and didn’t deserve to get thrown out,” he said.

“They want to be treated as a veteran.”

Today, when the military comes up in conversation, Moylan tells people she’s a veteran. The anger she carried for so long doesn’t feel as heavy as it once did. Pride is slowly taking its place.

“I’m just so grateful,” she said. “I’m so grateful everything worked out.” n

To learn more about The Veterans Consortium’s Discharge Upgrade Program, visit www.vetsprobono.org/dischargeupgrade, call 202-733-3324 or email [email protected].