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OutServe Magazine | October 21, 2014

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Thank You, Richard Collins

Thank You, Richard Collins
Jeremy Johnson

Just about anyone who has worn the uniform of a branch of the United States military and carried the accompanying ID card can tell you; changes in philosophy by the Department of Defense are, by design, exceedingly slow and often linked to headaches from methodically banging one’s head against a wall.

While regulations and guidance are constantly in a state of adjustment, readjustment, and re-readjustment, the basic philosophies that govern how the military interacts with the world and conducts itself administratively are much more predictable and steady.  In fact, for many of us it’s the comfort of tradition and knowing what IS predictable that neutralizes the annoyances of the seemingly endless and chaotic changes in the daily minutiae.

There’s an odd comfort in knowing that as enlisted personnel, even though we’re required to be standing at attention at special events 15-30 minutes before the brass shows up, we aren’t alone in this mild inconvenience.  It’s been that way for decades, and it will be that way for decades to come.  The philosophy behind it has to do with good order and discipline, and though the uniforms may change, that perceived need never will.

Courtesy U.S. Navy

U.S. Navy photo.

So maybe you can understand now why I was surprised, nay, shocked, when I saw a headline from Windy City Times announcing the ACLU and DOD have come to a settlement on the issue of separation pay for members who only received 50% when kicked out under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

It isn’t that I believe the Pentagon is anti-gay, because I really don’t.  It isn’t that I believe they think the policy was justified, because I also doubt that to be the case.

What I find incredible is that they agreed to settle in what amounts to an admission that this was something that was wrong and wholly unkind in its execution. They are owning up to a history of blatant targeted discrimination and setting yet another precedent by righting that wrong.

Josh Block, one of the ACLU attorneys who handled the case, told me by phone that it was a long and arduous process, but worth it. I’d have to agree.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m affected by the outcome of this case. That’s why I called ACLU when the article about the settlement came to my attention.  But to be completely honest, as I told Block, I never expected this case to go anywhere when it was launched.  I didn’t think the Pentagon would budge on what critics of the settlement are calling “reparations” because it was part of the past, and they’d likely see no reason to remedy the wrong when it affected such a small percentage of veterans.

My service as an active duty Sailor lasted a little more than 10 years. The 50% separation pay was something I found out about AFTER my discharge proceedings began. That money, even at 50%, was absolutely needed.  I had to move back to the states from Guam and find a place to live while also looking for a job – all within about 60 days. When I did return, I arranged to stay with a friend until I could get hired somewhere. That money helped me get back on my feet, and that’s the value and purpose of separation pay.

Halving the rate was an insult to veterans like me not because it was less money, but because it was justified using the reason for our separation: “Homosexuality”. It was, in essence, a slap in the face for those of us who were being involuntarily separated under Honorable conditions simple for being labeled gay.

You’re only worth half as much as the typical servicemember because you’re gay.”  It was the penultimate dig before we received DD-214 discharge papers with “Homosexual…” written at the bottom.

So here’s to progress and the folks who have continued to fight for it in the more obscure corners of the DADT world. I’m incredibly grateful to former Air Force Staff Sergeant Richard Collins and the ACLU team that pursued this case. I’m also grateful to the leaders and staff at the Pentagon who ultimately decided to settle.

This is another step in undoing the harm to DADT-discharged vets who walked away from military service with a permanent stamp of disapproval by the organization we poured our blood, sweat and tears into. Our service was just as valuable as our heterosexual counterparts. It’s not just about money. It’s about admitting it was wrong, apologizing, correcting the injustice and setting the record… straight.