Many gay troops were shamed with less-than-honorable discharges that became official scarlet letters barring them from veterans’ benefits and costing them government jobs and other employment.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — When the Army discharged Pvt. Donald Hallman in 1955 for being what it called a “Class II homosexual,” the 21-year-old was so scared of being an outcast that he burned all his military records, save for a single dog tag he hid away.
Hallman, a coal miner’s son who sang in a church choir in rural Alabama, says he never mentioned his military service again. He married a woman, had children and wore a suit and tie to work each day.
“I hid it because it would have ruined my life,” Hallman said at his Columbus, Ohio, home.
This summer, Hallman, now 82, retrieved the dog tag from a keepsake box and began working through an application to the Department of Defense, asking that his decades-old discharge be upgraded from “undesirable” to “honorable.”
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“I’ve gotten to a point in my life where no one can hurt me now,” he said. “I don’t care who knows, and I want to show I was an honorable person.”
He is one of a steady march of older veterans who were kicked out of the military decades ago for being gay, and who are asking that their less-then-honorable discharges be upgraded.
By some estimates, up to 100,000 service members were discharged for being gay between World War II and the 2011 repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Many were given less-than-honorable discharges that became official scarlet letters barring them from veterans benefits, costing them government jobs and other employment, and leaving many coping with shame.
Emboldened by the gay soldiers serving openly in the military and the same-sex couples finding broad acceptance in civilian life, they are increasingly seeking amends.
“After all these years, I want to tie up loose ends,” said Jim Estep, 80, a retired professor in Buffalo, N.Y., who was given a less-than-honorable discharge in 1964. “It’s a way of getting the government, that faceless entity, in some way to acknowledge the authenticity of my life and my contribution to the country.”
A 2011 Obama administration policy generally grants an honorable discharge to any veteran who was kicked out for homosexuality unless there were “aggravating” factors, such as misconduct. Records from the Department of Defense show 80 percent of the nearly 500 requests submitted since 2011 received an upgrade.
But for many it is not an easy fix. Tracking down decades-old records and getting an upgrade can take years. Many veterans hire lawyers, and some veterans groups have asked for the process to be streamlined.
“It’s really frustrating,” said Becca von Behren, a staff attorney for the San Francisco organization Swords to Plowshares, which provides legal assistance to veterans. “If a veteran needs health care from the VA and it takes so long to get an upgrade, the veteran can really spiral down.”
A bill in Congress, the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, would grant blanket upgrades to nearly all veteran discharged for being gay, but it has been stalled in Congress since 2013, and backers say it has little chance of moving forward this year.
The military’s punishment of homosexuality dates to the Revolutionary War. Historians say Gen. George Washington personally ordered that a young officer be “dismiss’d with Infamy” and literally drummed out of Valley Forge, pursued by a fife and drum troop.
Starting in World War II, the military treated homosexuality as a mental defect rather than a crime, but still purged gays with quick discharges.
Through the 1980s, military investigators, usually working in pairs, employed long interrogations and threats of public humiliation to coerce service members to confess and name names.
“They put me in a hospital room for three or four days, no contact with anyone before questioning me,” Estep said in a phone interview.
He had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a future senator, John McCain, and was flying fighters off a carrier in the Pacific in 1964 when the Navy discovered a letter he had written to a gay friend. He soon found himself seated in a small room facing a pair of agents who thumbed through folders of documents.
“They said they knew everything about me, which now I suspect was a lie,” Estep said. “They had rifled through my room and gotten my address book, and told me they would call everyone in there and their employers and tell them what was going on.”
Estep, who was slated to join the astronaut program, signed a confession that ended his career.
He applied for an honorable discharge twice in the 1960s and was denied.
Hallman put what happened in 1955 out of his mind for decades until this year, when his daughter Deirdre asked why he was not eligible for veterans benefits.
“He just opened up and told me everything,” his daughter said.
After joining the Army, he became a clerk for Army intelligence in Frankfurt, West Germany. He had been rated excellent in reviews and recommended for a good-conduct medal, he said, but one day on the street he was propositioned by a young man and caught in a military sting. A few weeks later, he was thrown out of the Army.
He never told a soul, living a straight life with a house full of children. He became president of a trucking company and then a human-resources company.
Over the years, Hallman, who describes himself as bisexual, had a few casual encounters with men, but kept that part of his life hidden, he said. He later divorced, but said he had a good relationship with his ex-wife.
“I’m kind of proud of the life I’ve lived. I worked hard, was a success, owned two businesses and have a beautiful family, 12 grandchildren,” Hallman said. “But I feel like there is a stain on it, and I’d like to get it off there.”