Elaine Rodriguez was 23 years old when Navy investigators first confronted her about her sexuality in 1990. She dealt with it the only way she knew how, by denying it.
Rodriguez had not yet come out to her friends and family, let alone the military. At the time, gay and lesbian military personnel were not able to serve and it was just a rumor that could spark what was commonly referred to as a “witch hunt”. In Rodriguez’s case, that’s exactly what followed..
“I had a civilian friend at the time,” Rodriguez told CBS News. “They told me her name. They told me the apartment complex she lived in.” “I just put my hands up in the air, and I just said, ‘You know what, yeah, it’s all true.’”
A CBS News investigation found that Rodriguez is one of thousands of gay and lesbian men who have been dismissed from the military with less than honorable discharges — victims of discrimination who have continued to fight to regain their honor.
Leaving the military without an honorable discharge left more than an emotional scar. For thousands, that meant no VA benefits and no GI bill to help pay for college. Although there are official channels for veterans to apply for a so-called discharge upgrade, the A CBS News investigation found The process can be difficult and is often unsuccessful.
US Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, said the military is not doing enough to address the history of discrimination.
“We have to communicate with all of these veterans in whatever way we can to make sure they know that if they want the benefits that they got, if they want to be honorably discharged, there is a path and a process for doing that and we’re going to fight for them,” Gillibrand told CBS News.
Rodriguez’s discharge paper, known as DD-214, lists the reason for her separation as “having committed misconduct to commit a serious crime” — words she says still hurt. “It makes me feel like a criminal.”
In the years after leaving the Navy, Rodriguez continued to suffer the consequences of her dishonorable discharge when she was denied admission to the Police Academy and the possibility of a new dream.
She said “I can’t get a government job, I can’t be a police officer like I wanted to because of DD-214, yeah. They ruined my life.”
There have been dramatic changes in the way the military handles sexual orientation since Rodriguez’s discharge. A policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” defrauded an estimated 14,000 LGBTQ service members from 1994 to 2010 before it was ruled unconstitutional and repealed.
Leon Panetta, the defense secretary who oversaw the repeal in 2011, acknowledged last month to CBS News, “There wasn’t a lot of thought about the people who were laid off, who went through hell on this issue, about: ‘What are we going to do about them?’ And I’m sorry.” So in some ways.”
The number of veterans targeted because of their sexuality is large: about 100,000 since World War II, says Gillibrand, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Attorney Kristi Haglow is the director of the Free Discharge Upgrade Program administered by the Veteran’s Association. Her biggest concern is the lack of awareness among these veterans that a discharge upgrade is possible. Of the 1,200 applications it receives each month, less than 1% of the veterans are LGBTQ. “That’s what worries me,” she said. “I know they’re out there.”
There are also problems with the discharge upgrade process itself, which Haglo and other veterans said is near impossible without the help of a lawyer. While the Pentagon told CBS News veterans can fill out a simple two-page application and no legal representation is required, Bhaglo says it’s not that simple. In her experience, the success rate for veterans is less than 1 in 3 when applying without legal counsel.
Eileen Rodriguez learned that firsthand. In 2017, she applied to change her discharge to “honorable” but was only granted a partial exemption in the form of a “general” discharge. The Board of Correction of Naval Records wrote in its decision, “The members did not want the discharge to be promoted to honorable because NJP [non-judicial punishment] The charge included making a false official statement. One board member recommended that her application be denied outright. And the most stinging language—“to commit misconduct to commit a serious crime”—that hasn’t changed either.
“I just don’t understand. It just makes me feel, what did I do wrong?” Rodriguez said.
The Navy told CBS News it could not comment on Rodriguez’s case, citing privacy reasons.
Senator Gillibrand has been trying to force the Pentagon into action for years with a bipartisan bill called the Honor Restoration of Service Member Laws. Among its provisions is a mandate to set up a team that will identify and contact all veterans who may have been subjected to these discriminatory policies.
“They really need to do a lot. And that’s something this bill can create the will to do,” Gillibrand said. “The Department of Defense has been fighting us every step of the way… If they want to do it, it will be done.”
Ultimately, she says, the pressure really needs to come from the top.
“If you have a champion in the White House, it makes a huge difference. So if this becomes something President Biden really wants to achieve during his White House tenure, it will make that much easier,” she said. “And I am optimistic that with his help, we can accomplish this.”
In a previous statement to CBS News, the Department of Defense said it has “conducted several awareness campaigns to inform all veterans who believe they have been wronged or unfair to request correction of their military records,” adding that it has also launched an “individualized letter campaign,” mailing out more than 2,000 letters. To individuals who may have been adversely affected by DADT [“don’t ask, don’t tell”] Policy.”
Elaine Rodriguez hopes to find a volunteer attorney to take her case and try again.