Gay veterans to become eligible for benefits denied under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/30/2022 7:32:30 PM

HOLYOKE — Currently, veterans in Massachusetts who were expelled from the armed forces for revealing their sexual orientation during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era are ineligible for state benefits. But that is soon to change.

In an amendment to the state budget proposed by state Rep. John Velis, D-Westfield, and approved unanimously in the state Senate, those kicked out of the military for revealing their sexual orientation between 1994 and 2011 — when openly gay, lesbian or bisexual people were barred from military service — will now be eligible for generous state benefits given to veterans.

“Folks who were discharged with an ‘other than honorable’ discharge are ineligible for a whole host of state benefits,” Velis said in a phone interview Friday. Those include everything from housing and food aid to tuition waivers and eligibility to live at one of the state’s two soldiers’ homes. “The fact that they had to hide who they were, the fact that they could get kicked out for who they love … I’ve never ever understood that.”

Velis said that last year, a decade after “don’t ask, don’t tell” was repealed, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs issued a policy clarification making those expelled because of that policy eligible for benefits. His amendment goes further, he said, enshrining in law that those veterans are eligible for state benefits.

“It’s the right thing to do and the human thing to do,” Velis said.

Nationwide, it’s estimated that more than 14,000 service members were forced out of the military because of the discriminatory policy. Under the amendment, Massachusetts veterans would have to come before a board and show, with a preponderance of evidence, that they were impacted by “don’t ask, don’t tell.” That’s a low evidentiary threshold, Velis noted, due to the fact that many of those veterans may not have access to their documents so long after their discharge.

“It’s a low threshold and that’s very deliberate,” he said.

Velis, who is himself a veteran, said that during his last deployment in 2018 he remembers carrying with him a picture of his then girlfriend, Emily — now his wife. It’s a comfort of home that many service members carry with them in order to remember their loved ones and share stories with others. Recently, he said it dawned on him that there were many service members who couldn’t take part in that tradition.

“There were people out there who literally could not take out a picture of their loved one because … it would get them kicked out of the military,” he said. “How shameful is that?”

Velis said he is unsure how many veterans in Massachusetts were expelled from the military because of the policy, but that he hopes that news of the change in state policy will bring forward those who were affected.

“By getting this out there and making a big deal on it, the hope is that there are going to be a lot of people,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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