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Restoring Honor for LGBTQ+ Veterans: A Matter of Life & Death

August 16, 2021 By Michael Schumer
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How many military veterans do you know personally? For the longest time, I only knew one: my grandpa. My grandpa landed at Normandy on D+3, June 9, 1944. Three days following General Eisenhower’s successful efforts on Utah Beach, my grandpa had landed and was tasked with liberating Nazi concentration camps. A young Jewish man, the trauma of genocide and war must have haunted him. I can only imagine because he never vocalized his experiences to me. However, I internalized one unspoken lesson: I must learn from his heroism and sacrifice and devote my life to serving veterans who have endured the invisible wounds of war — psychological scars — since our nation’s founding. My grandpa’s Greatest Generation was no exception, and neither are post-9/11 veterans. In the words of Abraham Lincoln at his second inaugural address 120 years before my grandpa’s unit returned to New York Harbor, Americans must “care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” This solemn promise is so sacred that it is the motto for the VA to this day.

Against the backdrop of the veteran suicide crisis, I invoke Lincoln’s words and ask that Congress restores the honor, dignity, and benefits of LGBTQ+ who were denied benefits on the basis of their sexual orientation. Correcting unjust discharges would mean LGBTQ+ veterans access crucial VA mental healthcare resources, as veterans grapple with mental health wounds and suicide. Here is what I recommend: Congress must pass S.1956 — Restore Honor to Service Members Act to ensure equity for LGTBQ+ Veterans. The restored benefits could save lives by curbing the per day veteran suicide rate.

According to the latest data released by the VA, 17.6 veterans commit suicide per day, a rise from 17.5 average suicide deaths per day one year prior. The rate is unsurprisingly higher for those veterans who did not receive recent (i.e. within one year of suicide) VA care: “In 2018, the average of 17.6 Veteran suicides per day comprised 6.5 Veterans with recent VHA use and 11.1 Veterans without recent VHA use.” The data are deeply troubling given the scores of veterans rendered ineligible for VA benefits under, now repealed, federal law, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Under the policy, veterans were discharged from the military without benefits or honorable status merely on the basis of their sexual orientation. LGBTQ+ veterans who sacrificed their lives to protect their fellow Americans were discharged from the military without the full rights, benefits, and services they deserved. Inconceivably, even after the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, LGBTQ+ veterans have still been left behind, as their less than honorable discharge status keeps them ineligible from life-saving benefits.

LGTBQ+ veterans in New York State had enough of this discrimination, recognizing that this bigotry had fatal consequences. The New York State veteran suicide rate is 21.7% with 172 suicide deaths in 2018 alone according to the most recent data. Consequently, veteran groups advocated for New York State to take action. Tenacious advocacy paid off. Governor Cuomo signed The Restoration of Honor Act (S.45B/A.8097) on November 12, 2019. This show of equality is a strong start. However, it is time for Congress to pass a federal version of the bill to ensure equity for all LGTBQ+ veterans. As citizens, we must heed Lincoln’s vision to care for the veterans who have “borne the battle.”

First, we must self-reflect. The military transition to civilian life is a challenge: benefits are terribly confusing and the path to vocational and educational success are marred with their own irregularities, inefficiencies, and biases towards civilians. Civilians and veterans are not on the same page according to the Defense Department. On the home front, we must champion veterans by bridging the military-civilian divide. We must care for these veterans personally, as I did my grandpa and now do all of my LGBTQ+ veterans friends fighting for their honor.

Second, we must demand our states’ congressional delegations act expeditiously to reintroduce federal legislation restoring honor and benefits for all veterans. New York State can lead the way again, as our junior senator Kirsten Gillibrand was an original co-sponsor of S.1956 — Restore Honor to Service Members Act and can push for the bill’s passage which would see New York State’s steps enacted federally. However, the bill was introduced and died in Congress in 2014. It is our responsibility to advocate for reintroduction and passage to ensure every veteran receives care.

Third, we must tout the success of New York State in not only filling in the gaps left by the federal government, but also serving as a model for national success: in the words of Justice Louis Brandeis, New York State served as a laboratory for innovation by restoring 50+ benefits to LGBTQ+ veterans who fit the description of a less than honorable discharge on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

To be sure, naysayers will lament the partisanship in Congress and inaction of our senators and congressmen. However, I believe the success of the New York State model and the dire nature of veteran suicide amidst a great demand for care during the pandemic are ingredients for the perfect storm to ensure a path to victory.

​I am hoping to continue honoring my grandpa’s legacy by advocating for minorities like him. LGBTQ+ veterans deserve their honor restored and lifesaving mental healthcare benefits. After all, like the anti-Semitism he faced in Nazi-occupied Europe, my grandpa’s fellow service members were likewise mistreated on the basis of sexual orientation: “since the Second World War, more than 100,000 service members are estimated to have been discharged from the military because of their sexual orientation.” We must stop this madness. All veterans must have access to mental healthcare irrespective of their sexual orientation: it is quite literally a matter of life and death.

Michael Schumer is proud to note that his grandfather fought in Normandy in WWII and departed for service from Fort Hamilton in Bay Ridge. A civilian champion for military veterans, he founded Points for Patriots, a non profit to support veterans and honor the anniversary of 9/11. A graduate of University of Chicago, he also served as a White House intern, and worked closely with Michelle Obama on her nationwide veterans initiative, Joining Forces.

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