Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Come Back?

Congress voted to repeal DADT. Can gay soldiers who were discharged under the old rules re-enlist?

Dan Choi

The Senate voted to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on Saturday after weeks of wrangling. More than 13,000 service members have been fired since that rule came into effect in 1993. Can those people re-enlist?

Probably. For the past 17 years, service members discharged for homosexual conduct have been permanently barred from the military, even if they swore that their sexual preference had changed. During that time, Congress has considered several bills to repeal DADT, many of which would have explicitly permitted discharged service members to rejoin. (The process is technically called reaccession.) In the end, the bare-bones legislation that Congress is about to send to the president punts the re-enlistment issue to the Pentagon. We don’t yet know for sure how the secretary of defense will handle the discharged soldiers, but the military’s November report (PDF) supporting repeal recommended that they be permitted to come back. Secretary Gates commissioned the report and has so far endorsed its findings.

Any plan to take back dismissed soldiers may run into snags with the paperwork. Most gay people released under DADT received what’s called an involuntary honorable discharge, which also applies to personnel with mental health problems or parental duties that preclude military service. Those who receive an involuntary honorable discharge are usually assigned the RE-4 re-enlistment code, which means they’re not allowed to come back.

It’s not clear how the Pentagon is going to work around this bureaucratic problem. Normally, each branch of the service would draft its own set of rules, but General James F. Amos, the top man in the Marines, has been less than enthusiastic about repealing the policy. Secretary Gates may have to issue a special blanket rule that either alters the re-enlistment codes after the fact for fired gay soldiers, or instructs recruiters to ignore the code when the reason for discharge was homosexual conduct.

In any case, gay soldiers who wanted to return would have to be otherwise eligible for active service. For example, the maximum age for enlistment is between 27 and 42, depending on the branch, so a man who was discharged in 1994 might now be too old to get back into uniform. (Age waivers are sometimes available.) Soldiers who gained weight during their involuntary retirement years may also find it impossible to re-enlist.

Aside from special permission to reenlist, fired gay soldiers shouldn’t expect any special favors or apologies from Uncle Sam. The Pentagon’s recent report considered and rejected calls for compensation for those discharged under DADT. Nor will the military give returning service members credit for the years spent living the civilian life, so anyone who rejoins will have to go back to the pay grade he or she left with, and work the same number of years to qualify for retirement benefits.

Bonus Explainer: Will married gay soldiers get spousal benefits? Not the good ones. Certain military benefits, like family health insurance and additional housing allowances, are limited to service members with dependents. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act legally bars the military from treating gay partners as dependents, even if they wed in a gay-marriage-friendly state.

Gay service members will be able to grab a few extra perks. Many of them are now afraid to add their partner as a life insurance beneficiary, since it might tip the military off about their sexual preference. Once DADT is repealed, they can designated whomever they like. In addition, the November Pentagon report recommended extending a small category of benefits, like free legal services, to same-sex partners.

Bonus Bonus Explainer: Will repealing DADT cost us anything? Yes. According to the Pentagon report, same-sex partner benefits, education and training programs on how to behave in a fully integrated military will cost up to $60 million annually. (That figure includes “minor privacy accommodations”—like shower curtains.) On the other hand, the military will save $20 million on recruiting and training replacements for discharged gay soldiers.

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