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Gay veterans push for honorable discharges they were denied

Published Sep. 6, 2015

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 he had met at work, had children and wore a suit and tie to work each day.

"I hid it because it would have ruined my life," Hallman said in an interview at his Ohio home.

But 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."

"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 now asking that their less-then-honorable discharges be upgraded.

By some estimates, as many as 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 grappling with shame for decades.

Now, emboldened by the gay soldiers serving openly in the military and the same-sex couples finding broad acceptance in civilian life, they are seeking amends.

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's far from an easy fix. Tracking down decades-old records and getting an upgrade can take years. Some veterans groups have asked for the process to be streamlined.