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Thousands of LGBTQ veterans have yet to receive the military benefits they're owed

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's been 12 years since the military allowed gay troops to serve openly. Before that, tens of thousands were discharged. And as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, to this day, only a tiny fraction have been made eligible for their veteran's benefits.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: This is the story of two men whose lives diverged around the military's discriminatory policy.

STEPHAN STEFFANIDES: My name is Stephan Steffanides, and I'm 54. I joined the Navy when I was 18.

LAWRENCE: At about the same age, the other man went Air Force.

BOB ALEXANDER: My name is Bob Alexander, retired Air Force lieutenant colonel.

LAWRENCE: Both men planned on making it a career. For Steffanides, it was a family tradition.

STEFFANIDES: My uncle was a captain. My great uncle was a master chief. My father was a chief engineer, USS Kitty Hawk in Vietnam. My family's been serving this country for all of the last century.

LAWRENCE: And both men were in the process of figuring out their sexuality, which was a problem. The ban on gay troops serving openly wouldn't be lifted for another 20 years, says Alexander.

ALEXANDER: I just decided that I would just follow the rules in terms of not acting on my sexuality, which meant that for the first - let's see - 12, 14 years, I was alone, celibate, not dating.

LAWRENCE: That's where their stories diverge. Alexander managed to hide for 20 years. Steffanides got caught. He was seen at a gay bar with some other sailors.

STEFFANIDES: They cut my locker open and found some gay magazines. OK, so they used those magazines to charge me with a violation of one or two, which was being homosexual.

LAWRENCE: He got an other than honorable discharge, which, for a veteran, is a brand of shame - no automatic VA benefits or VA health care. Getting a civilian job can be hard. Employers ask about military service and character of discharge. And Steffanides was suddenly outed to his family.

STEFFANIDES: They wanted nothing to do with me, was all arguments. It destroyed my family life. I turned to drugs and alcohol as soon as I got out of the Navy. And within a couple of years, I was homeless and living in the streets. And I spent 20 years in the streets.

LAWRENCE: Meanwhile, Bob Alexander spent those two decades rising through the ranks in the Air Force, but still also on the run.

ALEXANDER: The way I handled it, mostly, was I moved a lot, right? Whenever - I never stayed anywhere long enough for people to really get to know me too well.

LAWRENCE: At least twice he nearly got caught. Rumors started and he'd jump on the next chance to move, even if it wasn't great for his career or it meant walking out on a mortgage and losing a house.

ALEXANDER: In the 22 years I was in the military, I think I had 11 permanent duty assignments, and that's not including, you know, deployments.

LAWRENCE: Alexander did make the rank of lieutenant colonel just keeping his head down through the homophobic jokes and slurs. Then on September 20, 2011, the ban ended, and the military did what it does, started to follow the new orders that troops could serve openly. Alexander sat in a room full of senior officers talking about how to handle gay service members.

ALEXANDER: I said, you know what? I'm a gay service member, and send them to me, and I will handle it. And that's how I came out. The last year, year and a half of my time in the service was just amazing. And it was validation. These folks were wonderful. Once the fear was gone, once the unknown was unmasked, you know, after all that, after everything I'd been through, that validation in the end was very meaningful.

LAWRENCE: But he knew that validation was missing for untold numbers of other veterans who never got to finish their careers the way he did, openly and with full honors. That led Bob Alexander to a second career as a lawyer and his first legal job in San Francisco, trying to help gay veterans with other than honorable discharges. But first, he had to find them.

ALEXANDER: So first I started with fliers. I put up fliers all over the Bay Area, you know, in the gay bars, places I knew that, you know, these LGBTQ veterans would frequent. And I got nothing, no response at all.

LAWRENCE: Thing is, after the decadeslong campaign to allow troops to serve openly, the momentum just wasn't there to track down all the casualties of that policy. Advocates estimate that since World War II, about 114,000 troops were discharged for their sexuality. There were often other charges listed or heaped on to the discharge. So the paperwork's not always clear. But the Pentagon told NPR that as of March 2023, only about 1,375 veterans had been upgraded by discharge review boards - just over 1%. The Department of Veterans Affairs offers a much quicker solution, says Sue Fulton, VA assistant secretary.

SUE FULTON: Bottom line, if you're a veteran or a survivor or family member who was impacted by "don't ask, don't tell," come to VA. We're going to do everything in our power to get you the benefits you've earned and so richly deserve.

LAWRENCE: The VA can, for benefits purposes, reclassify most other than honorable discharges. It usually takes months, not years, like the Pentagon's process can. But VA doesn't track the number of don't ask, don't tell vets it has upgraded. And a dozen years ago, Bob Alexander was learning that some vets maybe didn't want to reopen this painful time in their past.

ALEXANDER: So then I went to gay pride events in both San Francisco and Oakland.

LAWRENCE: He stood at Pride parades for days. But he now realizes he shouldn't have put the word veteran on the fliers.

ALEXANDER: They were told by the military, they were told by the VA, told by society that they were not veterans. You put up these signs that say veteran, they probably didn't even look at the fliers.

LAWRENCE: Eventually, he looked where the need was most desperate, among the homeless. And that's where he met Stephan Steffanides, 20 years since his discharge from the Navy for being gay.

STEFFANIDES: You know, I was in the street, living in the gutter, literally behind a trash can.

LAWRENCE: Steffanides had no idea the policy had changed and that he was now eligible for VA housing and health care and disability.

STEFFANIDES: In San Francisco, they had a homeless fair where homeless people could go get socks and clean needles.

LAWRENCE: Bob Alexander had a booth at that homeless fair with a big sign saying, we restore VA benefits. Even then, Steffanides didn't want to go.

STEFFANIDES: Actually, my boyfriend brought me to them.

ALEXANDER: I think Stephan had a panic attack. Just approaching a nonprofit veterans service organization was traumatic for him.

STEFFANIDES: They told me, you know what, we don't leave our wounded in the battlefield. You served your country for two years. And regardless of your discharge, we don't want to see you suffering.

ALEXANDER: So we handled getting Stephan his access to the VA. And it was a simple letter from them saying - it just said, for the purposes of VA, we find your service to be honorable.

STEFFANIDES: Getting a letter from the VA thanking me for my honorable service was, like, spiritual for me. I was so excited.

LAWRENCE: That's the VA part, health care and disability. Bob Alexander says the Pentagon is taking longer.

ALEXANDER: His discharge paperwork, we're working on that now. But just that acknowledgment from the VA that he is a veteran was like a light - just like a light shone down on him.

STEFFANIDES: I was so, so proud, and it inspired me to be of service to others.

LAWRENCE: Steffanides now runs a support group in San Francisco for LGBTQ veterans and records their oral histories.

STEFFANIDES: You know, I can continue to be the person that I wanted to be when I was much younger and I had joined the service. That was to serve my country. There's still ways I can do that.

LAWRENCE: There are probably tens of thousands of veterans living without their benefits. To find them would take a deep dive into Pentagon records and a sustained effort to locate them and upgrade their papers. Several former and current Pentagon officials said in the current political climate, with the right-wing bashing the military as woke, that's unlikely to happen. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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