The change comes as the country approaches the 10th anniversary of repeal of the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” law which forced nearly 14,000 service members out of the ranks for admitting their sexual orientation.
But the impact of the new VA announcement goes further than just those individuals, to potentially include troops who served before and after the law who may have been given bad performance reviews or intimidated into leaving the military because of their LGBT status.
Outside advocates estimate as many as 100,000 over the last 70 years may have been involuntarily separated from the military based on their sexual orientation. Data on how many received other-than-honorable discharges is not available.
According to sources familiar with the pending announcement, VA officials plan a series of reviews of those veterans’ cases, with a presumption in favor of granting them benefits unless records give a clear reason to oppose that.
The announcement to be released on Monday — the anniversary of the DADT repeal — includes VA Secretary Denis McDonough asserting that department officials have the authority to award those individuals full VA benefits if their case warrants, regardless of the discharge status.
Individuals with dishonorable discharges or clear criminal history documented in their service records will still not be granted benefits under the new plan.
The military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was in place from 1993 to 2011. It prohibited LGBT service members from publicly discussing or acknowledging their sexual orientation, with a penalty of dismissal from the ranks if the truth was discovered. Before that, all LGBT individuals were barred completely from serving.
Gay rights advocates for years have noted that both before and while the DADT policy was in place, many military commanders biased against LGBT troops often issued bad conduct dismissals to those individuals — citing issues like substandard fitness reports or poor performance — to cover up bigotry or frustration related to issues of sexual orientation.
That later prompted VA staff to deny benefits to those veterans, since their paperwork did not show honorable discharge status.
The new move will extend VA medical care, disability payouts, employment assistance and other benefits individuals previously blocked because of other-than-honorable discharges.
Department legal officials believe the change will not require any new legislative action or policy statements, because the department already has broad authority to interpret which veterans are eligible for department services.
White House officials are expected to mark the DADT repeal anniversary with an event on Monday. Exact timing on the VA announcement is unclear. VA officials declined comment on the pending news.
Veterans with other than honorable discharges can apply to have their status upgraded, but that process often takes years and has been criticized by outside groups for being overly cumbersome. The new move by VA effectively goes around that process, awarding benefits to individuals quickly even if their review process remains unresolved.
Joe Biden was vice president when then President Barack Obama signed the DADT repeal into law. As president, Biden has vowed to make all government agencies more inclusive to minority and underrepresented groups.
When McDonough took over as secretary in February, he pledged to make the department a place that “welcomes all veterans, including women, veterans of color, and LGBTQ veterans.” In June, officials announced plans to offer transgender surgeries at department hospitals for the first time.