Rhode Island State House

The Senate today approved legislation sponsored by Sen. Dawn Euer (D-Dist. 13, Newport, Jamestown) to extend veterans’ benefits to members of the armed forces who were discharged because of their sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.

The bill (2019-S 0837) would provide a petition process to have a discharge recorded for state purposes as honorable for members of the armed services who were given a discharge that was not honorable due solely to sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression. According to the bill, doing so will allow them to receive all state benefits to which honorably discharged veterans are entitled, even if they have previously been denied.

“While the armed forces have fortunately stopped discharging members under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the current federal administration has renewed its attacks on our transgender service members. Far too many veterans have been discharged, shamed and left without the benefits they earned because of decades of a dehumanizing policy that said they couldn’t serve. They deserved gratitude and honor, and we should be doing everything we can to ensure that these wrongs are righted and that they get the respect they deserve,” said Senator Euer in a prepared statement.

By some estimates, as many as 100,000 service members were discharged for being gay between World War II and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that took effect in 1994. Many of these were given undesirable discharges, barring them from veterans’ benefits. Under the provisions of the legislation, the director of the Office of Veterans’ Affairs would provide a form certifying that the member’s discharge is to be treated as honorable.

The military will now upgrade some of those undesirable discharges to “honorable” status as long as there were no instances of misconduct, but digging up decades-old records can be difficult and time-consuming and often takes years. Some veterans prefer to go without benefits to avoid pain, embarrassment and hassle.

This state-level action would not affect federal benefits, but would allow veterans to take advantage of state and local benefits afforded to veterans.

Under the bill, the director of the state Office of Veterans’ Affairs would be required to inform veterans in the state that the measure may make them eligible to benefits they were previously denied.

The measure now moves to the House, which has approved companion legislation (2019-H 5443A) sponsored by Rep. Camille F.J. Vella-Wilkinson (D-Dist. 21, Warwick).

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