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Army vet still paying the price for bad paper discharge for being gay

Army vet still paying the price for bad paper discharge for being gay

Editor’s note: This article first appeared on The War Horse, an award-winning nonprofit news organization educating the public on military service. Subscribe to their newsletter.

In the darkness of early morning, Mona McGuire startled awake. A fist beat on the barracks door. Her heart accelerated into a full gallop, and then the yelling began.

Detectives from the Army’s criminal investigation division had burst into her room. They stripped her bedding, handcuffed her, along with three other female soldiers, and drove them to headquarters for fingerprinting, a mug shot, and hours of questioning.

It was May 1988, and McGuire’s interrogators knew everything — her romantic partner, where she hung out, even her menstrual cycle. Eventually, McGuire admitted that, yes, she had been intimate with women.

It not only ended her Army career at the age of 20, it remains on her record to this day: The military branded McGuire with a biblically archaic crime, forcing her to plead guilty to charges of sodomy and an indecent act to avoid a court-martial and possibly prison.

“I was embarrassed. I was ashamed,” said McGuire, who now lives in suburban Milwaukee.

For 35 years, only her closest friends knew why she left the service.

Yet, even today, in the eyes of the Department of Veterans Affairs — an agency that’s flown pride flags in front of its hospitals—she’s considered an outcast, ineligible for benefits like health care.

It’s an almost unthinkable relic of a discriminatory era that the military is still struggling to repair, advocates say. McGuire is among as many as 100,000 veterans forced out of the military because of their sexual orientation from the 1950s through the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in 2011.

While a much-heralded reform this month could ease restrictions for thousands of veterans denied VA benefits in the past, it won’t help McGuire and an unknown number of LGBTQ veterans still stigmatized with criminal convictions for being gay.

“I feel like some people had the perspective that once ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was repealed, everything would be fine,” says Dana Montalto, an attorney with the Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School. “But the repeal didn’t do anything to remedy the harm.”

Baby steps for vets with ‘bad paper’

Until 1993, the military prohibited gay and lesbian people from serving, and it went to great lengths to persecute and prosecute those who tried. “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” introduced under the Clinton administration, was supposed to be a gentler approach, allowing LGBTQ people to serve as long as their sexual orientation remained hidden.

Despite that promise, thousands of officers and enlisted service members were discharged. Even if they lived a closeted life, sometimes they were outed or unfairly hit with numerous allegations of misconduct. In 2010, President Obama signed the repeal of the policy, erasing sexual orientation as a barrier to military service.

The military has been struggling to repair the legacy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” since it was repealed in 2011. (Photo credit: Senior Chief Petty Officer Robert Fluegel U.S. Navy)

Since the repeal, the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments have taken steps to rectify the military’s discriminatory past. But those efforts don’t automatically erase “less than honorable discharges” stemming from sexual orientation.

Next week, VA will begin considering appeals from veterans with “bad paper” — another term for “less than honorable” discharges — who can show “compelling circumstances” — such as harassment, military sexual trauma, discrimination, mental health struggles — that may have led to their forced exit.

While VA lauds the change as a win for LGBTQ service members and other veterans with checkered pasts, advocates say it still falls short.

“It’s a small change,” says Renee Burbank, director of litigation at the National Veterans Legal Services Program. “It’s not a wide-scale major overhauling of the system.”

For McGuire, the shift doesn’t help because anyone who was court-martialed or accepted a discharge “in lieu of a general court-martial” doesn’t qualify. That could shut out untold thousands of veterans who still carry the scar of discharges over their sexual orientation.

How many veterans fall into that category is unclear. The Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard have all delayed responding or denied a Freedom of Information Act request by The War Horse for court-martial records connected to cases of service members prosecuted for sodomy, conduct unbecoming, and indecent acts.

A federal civil rights lawsuit filed last summer, calling on the Department of Defense to upgrade less than honorable discharges for veterans who were the subject of discrimination, said at least 35,800 veterans were thrown out of the military since 1980 “because of real or perceived homosexuality, homosexual conduct, sexual perversion, or any other related reason.”

In the wake of the lawsuit, the Pentagon announced it would examine the records of veterans discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell” and potentially help pursue upgrades. But no update or timeline has been given.

The opening line of the class action lawsuit summed up the injustice by quoting a line etched on a Vietnam War veteran’s gravestone in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

“When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

Worried ‘someone would tell on us’

There was nothing equal about the treatment and punishment LGBTQ service members endured over the years, said Montalto, who has represented them for more than a decade. Commanding officers could decide to quietly push out a gay soldier with an honorable discharge, or, like in the case of McGuire, make an aggressive show of it.

McGuire, who grew up in the small town of Mineola in eastern Texas, enlisted in the Army in 1987 to feel close to her father, a man she “worshiped.” He died of lung cancer when she was only seven, and she vowed to become a military police officer, just as he had been during World War II.

Mona McGuire enlisted in the Army to feel closer to her father, Almus Bernard McGuire, a former military police officer who died when she was seven. (Photo courtesy of Mona McGuire)

The Army proved a great fit. “I was in heaven,” McGuire says. “I loved the activity. I loved the rigor. I loved the discipline. It was my world.” She’d make a career in the Army, she decided.

Stationed with the 164th Military Police Company in West Germany, she met a fellow young soldier from Wisconsin, Karla Lehmann. McGuire remembers Lehmann was bubbly; Lehmann recalls McGuire was a flirt.

“I didn’t know I was gay at that point,” Lehmann says. “We started hanging out.”

And they lived in fear.

“We were worried someone in the unit would tell on us,” Lehmann recalls.

The two — who are still friends today — would later learn that’s exactly what happened.

Dragged from their barracks on that morning in May 1988, Lehmann, McGuire and two other female soldiers were interrogated separately. At first, they refused to answer deeply personal questions. When threatened with a court-martial and imprisonment, they confessed.

Lehmann recalls at one point being escorted to the bathroom and seeing McGuire, who was seated on a bench, crying. They looked at one another and knew right away.

Their military service was over.

‘I regret to inform you …”

More than three decades later, with an LGBTQ-friendly Democrat in the White House and same-sex marriage the law of the land, McGuire felt like it was time to appeal to the Army to remove the stain from her military record.

So in 2022, she set out to upgrade her discharge. The precise words that continued to disgrace her for decades were written on her exit paperwork under reason for separation: “for the good of the service in lieu of court-martial.”

Karla Lehmann, left, and Mona McGuire stayed together the year after being forced out of the Army. They remain close friends today. (Photo courtesy of Mona McGuire)

Not many veterans have jumped at the chance to upgrade their discharges since the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Statistics kept by the Department of Defense show that only about 1,600 veterans had applied as of March 2023. Most of them succeeded.

McGuire filled out the forms on her own, describing how she sank into depression after her discharge, and how she loved her country and wanted more than anything to serve and protect. She detailed the honorable life she’s lived since, working at a printing company since the early ‘90s and raising two athletic, smart boys with her wife of more than 30 years.

She thought she had a good chance. More than 10 years earlier, the Department of Defense had issued a memo guiding boards of review to grant upgrade requests if the discharge was based solely on anti-LGBTQ policy and there were no other aggravating charges.

But in August 2023, a letter from the Department of the Army arrived: “I regret to inform you that the Army Board for Correction of Military Records denied your application.”

The eight-page denial stressed that McGuire had admitted guilt, requested her discharge over court-martial, and failed to offer compelling evidence that she suffered from depression following her discharge.

When The War Horse reached out to the Army board with questions about McGuire’s denial, it failed to respond.

Christie Bhageloe,  an attorney with the pro bono The Veterans Consortium, said the denial in this day and age made no sense.

“Because if you look at her record, they are all charges for just being gay. That’s it,” said Bhageloe, who is working with McGuire to appeal the decision. “The fact that [the board] didn’t even make that effort really worries me because you shouldn’t need a lawyer to do this.”

VA benefits to keep troops in line

Bhageloe and other attorneys hoped life would get easier under the new VA rules for LGBTQ veterans trying to clear their names.

But back in 2020, when VA announced it was planning to allow more veterans with “bad paper” to apply for benefits, the Department of Defense raised concerns.

Mona McGuire, who now lives in a Milwaukee suburb, is fighting to clear her “bad paper” discharge 36 years after she and three other female soldiers were thrown out of the Army because they were gay. It ended what she hoped would be a career as a military police officer after only seven months. (Photo by Ebony Cox/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

In an April 2024 letter, Ashish Vazirini, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, wrote to VA Secretary Denis McDonough urging VA to keep barriers in place, in part because the lure of future VA benefits, he argued, keep service members in line.

A chorus of concerns from advocates, attorneys, and members of Congress all pointed out that the Department of Defense and VA are entirely separate entities. DOD’s focus is mission readiness, while VA exists to care for those who stepped up to serve.

Even so, VA followed many of Vazirini’s recommendations.

“It hurts veterans and cuts against their (VA’s) mission to allow the Department of Defense to essentially preempt what they’re trying to do,” said Rose Carmen Goldberg, a veterans law expert at Stanford Law School. “I think there’s a real conflict there.”

In a statement, a VA spokesperson, Gary Kunich, told The War Horse that the agency continues to address ongoing issues that LGBTQ veterans face “as a result of the military’s decades-long official policy of homophobia and transphobia.” Kunich said he could not comment on McGuire’s case specifically but acknowledged that under the updated rule, veterans discharged “in lieu of court-martial” could still face barriers if they apply for VA benefits.

Goldberg and other advocates agree that certain infractions, such as going AWOL for six months, rightly disqualify veterans from accessing lifelong benefits. But there is concern that even the new rules that give veterans a chance to explain circumstances around their “less than honorable” dismissals can lead to biased outcomes.

“A lot of these VA adjudicators themselves are veterans,” said Mo Siedor, an attorney with Swords to Plowshares, a nonprofit veterans service organization, “and they’re like, ‘Well, I got out with an ‘honorable.’ Why didn’t you?”

The bombshell Facebook message

For 30 years, McGuire, Lehmann, and the other two women in their group have wondered who was behind the tip that led to their disgrace.

Suddenly, on Jan. 18, 2018, they got an answer.

McGuire received a text message from Lehmann. It was a screenshot of a Facebook message from a woman in McGuire’s platoon all those years ago. The message was originally sent to a lieutenant who was among the group of soldiers forced out of the military for being gay.

“I just wanted to say how sorry I am!!!” the message said. “I had a pretty sheltered life growing up. I was never around ppl [sic] of a different race or gays or lesbians. … I’ve always wanted to find you guys and apologize for ruining your military career.”

The woman went on to say that she was not “100% lesbian” herself, but identified as “bi.”

McGuire was stunned, hurt, and fuming. “It’s not an apology,” she says.

Lehmann, though, is mostly at peace with how her military career ended. She does not need VA benefits, and she’s proud that despite the stain on her record, the Milwaukee Police Department hired her, and she retired as an officer after 25 years. She now works as a forensic interviewer and says the way the military treated her “made me a much better officer, and made me very thoughtful about when I was arresting people.”

Karla Lehmann spent 25 years on the force of the Milwaukee Police Department. (Photo courtesy of Karla Lehmann)

Still, Lehmann says, she can’t shake how ironic it is that before being discharged, she and McGuire were incessantly harassed by men. Lehmann’s sergeant suggested she come to his room, handing her his room key. McGuire twice discovered naked men waiting in her bed. Men would climb through their barracks windows.

“Yet, we were being arrested for sodomy and indecent acts,” Lehmann says.

McGuire, meanwhile, longs for justice. Her attorney, Bhageloe, is appealing her denial for a discharge upgrade and asking that McGuire, who spent only 11 months in the Army, be granted two years of service so that she’s eligible for VA benefits.

“That’s a big ask,” Bhageloe acknowledges, “but it was a big deal that her military service ended early, really through no fault of [her] own.”

Lately, McGuire has had dreams that she’s reenlisted in the Army. It’s a thrill to find herself lacing up combat boots and going through basic.

Often, in the dream, someone will ask: “Why are you back?” In her real life, she said, she’s not allowed on military grounds.

When she closes her eyes, though, she settles right in, as if it’s the months before her arrest. She remembers it as “the best time of my life,” until that early morning in May when she was awakened by the pounding on the door.

This War Horse investigation was reported by Anne Marshall-Chalmers, edited by Mike Frankel, fact-checked by Jess Rohan, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Abbie Bennett wrote the headlines.

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