LGBTQ military veterans finally seeing the benefits of honorable discharge originally denied them

On the very same day the Pentagon announced in September it was taking steps to help LGBTQ veterans, Marine Corps vet Donnie Ray Allen was taking a major step of his own: registering for his first-ever college course.

At 47 years old, Allen is pursuing his bachelor’s degree, a dream he gave up decades ago when he was discharged from the military, denied an honorable discharge, and thus deprived of the crucial GI bill he needed to pay for college. He’s among thousands of veterans who were kicked out of the Armed Forces because of their sexual orientation before the military overturned its policy banning gay and lesbian troops from serving openly, known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

When CBS News first spoke with Allen a year ago, he was still carrying what’s known as an other than honorable discharge and still ineligible to access the full spectrum of benefits afforded to honorably discharged vets including healthcare, tuition assistance, VA loans and even some federal jobs. With the help of a lawyer, Allen was granted his honorable discharge earlier this year and this month finished his first semester of college using his GI bill. The results, he told CBS News’ Jim Axelrod, have been life-changing. 

“I’m a completely different person than I was a year ago, for the better,” Allen said. “If I get sick, if I get cancer or something like that, it will all be covered under the VA now. So that is a huge weight off my shoulders.” 

Like so many others, Allen saw the military as a way out of his tough life in a tiny, close-minded South Carolina town. He dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Marine Corps, where he soon thrived. He was meritoriously promoted out of boot camp as a lance corporal, received a National Defense Service Medal, an Expert Rifleman Badge and in three years, he reached an E-4 rank. His service record was impeccable. 

But serving under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” says Allen, meant he had to be careful about how he carried himself. “The witch hunt was always around, no matter what, during those times in the military.” 

Donnie Ray Allen
Marine Corps veteran Donnie Ray Allen

CBS News

The day before he was set to be honorably discharged, Donnie decided to come out to his sergeant major, hoping his reputation as an exceptional Marine would change his command’s perceptions of gay service members. He was wrong. An investigation was launched and he says months of harassment followed before he was finally allowed to leave — without his honorable discharge. 

In September, after a CBS News investigation documented the impact of a less than honorable discharge and exposed flaws in the military’s system for reviewing discharges, the Pentagon announced that it would for the first time begin proactively reviewing veterans’ records for a possible recommendation of a discharge upgrade. This means that these veterans would not have to apply for the upgrade themselves, a process that both veterans and experts told CBS News is often unsuccessful without the help of a lawyer. The department also launched a website with resources dedicated to helping LGBTQ+ veterans who believe they were wrongfully discharged for their sexuality.

A Defense Department official told CBS News that it has already begun the process of reviewing records of some 2,000 veterans for potential discharge upgrade eligibility. The CBS News investigation found the population of LGBTQ service members who were denied an honorable discharge numbers more than 29,000.

Christie Bhageloe is the director of a nonprofit that helps veterans, including Allen, seeking discharge upgrades. She’s “cautiously optimistic” about the military’s new efforts. 

“I would say just stating that there’s a problem is a great step forward,” Bhageloe said. “A lot of veterans were still discharged for misconduct, not specifically for homosexual conduct, so it is going to take a lot of records, reviews by someone who understands.” 

After the CBS News reports began to air, Bhageloe took up the case of Allen’s friend Amy Lambre, a Navy veteran who was also denied an honorable discharge. She told CBS News the snub always made her feel “less than honorable.” Just last month, Lambre got word her honorable discharge had also come through. Lambre says she no longer feels “less than.” 

As for Allen, he’s finally proud to be an American again — a feeling he hasn’t had since 1994 when he graduated boot camp. 

“It made me proud to be like an American in a sense that actually, finally our government is looking at us and being like, you are a valid reason for us to do this.” 

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