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Bill would allow state benefits to veterans kicked out for sexual orientation

Connecticut veterans who were other than honorably discharged from the military due to their sexual orientation would be able to access state veterans benefits currently denied to them under a proposal introduced in the General Assembly by state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague.

A similar proposal in the state House would expand eligibility to those discharged due solely to their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

Currently, veterans who receive an “other than honorable” discharge from the military are disqualified from certain state and federal veterans benefits. The Modern Military Association of America estimates that 114,000 veterans were discharged under either "other than honorable" or "dishonorable" circumstances for being lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Osten said she’s not sure how many veterans in Connecticut would be impacted by the bill but suspects it’s a small number.

The proposal is about parity, she said, given a 2018 law allowing Connecticut veterans discharged under "other-than-honorable" circumstances and who have post-traumatic stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury or sexual trauma resulting from their military service to access state veteran benefits.

The U.S. military discharges more than 20,000 service members annually with one of five statuses ranging from honorable to dishonorable. An other-than-honorable discharge is classified as an administrative separation.

Osten's proposal is backed by the Connecticut chapter of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which was instrumental in passing the 2018 law.  Steve Kennedy, Connecticut team leader of IAVA, said Osten’s bill is a good effort but he worries that it leaves out veterans who were not explicitly discharged for their sexual orientation but for related charges, such as “failure to adapt” or “a pattern of misconduct.”

Kennedy said he hopes there comes a day when "we can sever ties between discharge status and benefits altogether."

"That's the longer-term plan," he said. 

The state Department of Veterans Affairs, which was involved in the passage of the 2018 law, also supports Osten’s proposal.

"Even though it’s a small number of people who would be impacted, the impact for those people is very great because they are effectively being denied benefits they would otherwise be entitled to because of their honorable service but for that discharge with bad paper for sexual orientation,” Veterans Affairs Commissioner Thomas Saadi said.

Saadi said he supports “the concept of establishing a reasonable process for solving this problem” but acknowledges that resources are limited within the department to handle any additional workload. 

With the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, veterans are now eligible to upgrade their discharge statuses and have any references to their sexual orientation stripped from their military records, a lengthy process, which may be why few have sought to remedy their situation.

“There is no reason that Connecticut should enforce outdated federal discrimination in our state veterans programs,” said Michael Wishnie, a Yale law school professor who oversees the university's Veterans Legal Services Clinic, which several years ago helped a Connecticut  veteran upgrade his discharge status after being kicked out of the Air Force for being gay. The clinic has been at the forefront of the effort to upgrade veterans' discharge statuses.

Osten's bill not only would expand eligibility to state programs for “wrongfully discharged LGBTQ veterans,” Wishnie said, but it also would bring Connecticut statute in line with “the more expansive” New York state law recently passed, which followed Connecticut’s 2018 law, the first of its kind.

Osten’s bill has been assigned to the General Assembly’s Veterans Affairs Committee, which meets virtually at 11 a.m. Thursday. More information can be found at www.cga.ct.gov/va.

j.bergman@theday.com

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