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President Biden Pardons Service Members Convicted Under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

In late June 2024, President Biden issued a pardon for service members convicted of so-called “sodomy laws” forbidding what used to be called “homosexual conduct” by the Department of Defense.

The pardon allows those forced out of the military for identifying as LGTBQ+ to have their discharges reviewed and upgraded where approved.

The pardon does NOT automatically restore denied VA benefits, back pay, or other options,  nor does it automatically change the nature of an individual’s discharge, as we’ll explore below.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT)

Many convictions and involuntary discharges for “gay conduct” happened during the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era under Department of Defense Directive 1304.26 from December 21, 1993, until September 20, 2011.

However, the Biden pardon is good for those convicted under the Uniform Code of Military Justice while Article 125 was in effect, prohibiting so-called homosexual conduct from the 1950s to 2013.

Overturning Punitive Discharges Under DADT

The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was described in one DoD press release as a regulation designed to prevent harassment or discrimination against “non-heterosexual service members who did not reveal their sexual orientation while barring openly LGBTQ+ persons from military service.”

After its repeal in 2011, the DoD took many years to reconsider the discharges issued under Article 125. How long?

On the 12th anniversary of the repeal of DADT on September 20, 2023, the DoD issued a press release announcing “a historic day for the Department of Defense that made our military stronger,” according to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks.

The press release wasn’t just to commemorate the end of a bad policy. It also announced DoD efforts to reach out to veterans, encouraging them to submit their discharges under DADT for review and upgrade.

According to the press release, “Since the repeal, DOD has helped eligible veterans discharged because of their sexual orientation access the benefits they deserve. More than four out of five veterans who’ve applied for discharge upgrades or records corrections have been successful,” but some vets haven’t taken advantage of the help.

That in spite of what the press release calls an effort “to make the process easier.”

Related: Veteran Military Benefits Guide

President Biden’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Pardon

A presidential pardon is a significant step toward correcting the harms of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but it’s not a one-step process.

At press time, veterans must still submit their military discharges for review. There is no automatic upgrade of military discharges or automatic change in basic eligibility for VA benefits. To have a military discharge upgraded, veterans must approach their branch of service and follow their unique procedures.

When applying for a military discharge upgrade related to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the following caveats from the Department of Veterans Affairs official site may apply:

“You must prove that your discharge was solely due to your sexual orientation and events specifically related to it. If the events leading to your discharge were unrelated, you may still receive an upgrade, but you’ll have to argue that your discharge was an unjust punishment for those events.

Even under the Presidential pardon, discharge upgrades must still be applied for, and the process is not completed overnight.

At press time, DoD officials are still reviewing the options to help those affected by the pardon, and there are few answers to questions about the way forward for those who have been pardoned but have not had their records officially corrected yet.

If you are affected by the Presidential pardon of a conviction or discharge associated with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, contact the Department of Veterans Affairs immediately.

Related: Veteran Military Benefits Guide

About the author

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter/editor for Air Force Television News and the Pentagon Channel. His freelance work includes contract work for Motorola, VALoans.com, and Credit Karma. He is co-founder of Dim Art House in Springfield, Illinois, and spends his non-writing time as an abstract painter, independent publisher, and occasional filmmaker.