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Discharged over sexual orientation, military still owes thousands of vets

Ret. Lt. Col. Bob Alexander stayed closeted in the Air Force for 20 years because of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. He came out when the policy ended, and when he retired, he decided to help those who weren't discharged honorably because of their sexual orientation. He resides in Washington D.C., and works as a cybersecurity attorney.
Keren Carrión/NPR
Ret. Lt. Col. Bob Alexander stayed closeted in the Air Force for 20 years because of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. He came out when the policy ended, and when he retired, he decided to help those who weren't discharged honorably because of their sexual orientation. He resides in Washington D.C., and works as a cybersecurity attorney.

Bob Alexander joined the Air Force in 1990, planning to make it his career. He knew there was a big issue to deal with: Alexander was starting to question his sexual orientation. At the time, gay troops weren't allowed in the military. In fact, the ban wouldn't be lifted for another two decades.

"I just decided that I would just follow the rules in terms of not acting on my sexuality. Which meant that for the first 12, 14 years I was alone, celibate, not dating," he says.

Around the same time Stephan Steffanides joined the Navy, just like his father, uncle, grandfather and great uncle, among others.

"My family's been serving this country for all of the last century," Steffanides says.

He served aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, stationed at Norfolk, Va. But two years into his enlistment, Steffanides got spotted at a gay bar near his base.

"They cut my locker open and found some gay magazines," he says. Not only was it against the military regulations, gay sex was still illegal in Virginia, and many other states.

"They threw me in the brig, put me on bread and water — it was humiliating --for being gay," says Steffanides.

Advocates estimate that 114,000troops were pushed out of the service over the decades due to their sexual orientation, often with a less-than-honorable discharge. That means no automatic VA benefits or free VA health care. It makes getting a civilian job tough because employers often ask about military service. Many vets find it easier to omit that they served rather than explain an other-than-honorable discharge. That's what Steffanides received.

And to make matters worse, that's how he was suddenly outed to his family.

"They wanted nothing to do with me. It was all arguments that destroyed my family life," he says.

"I turned to drugs and alcohol as soon as I got out of the Navy, and within a couple of years I was homeless and living in the streets. I spent 20 years in the streets," says Steffanides.

Robert Alexander getting his 2nd lieutenant bars pinned by his parents at his commissioning.
/ Bob Alexander
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Bob Alexander
Robert Alexander getting his 2nd lieutenant bars pinned by his parents at his commissioning.

Meanwhile, Bob Alexander spent those 20 years rising through the ranks.

In 1993 President Bill Clinton tried to end the ban, but landed instead on a policy known as "don't ask, don't tell." As long as they kept it secret, gay and lesbian troops could serve.

"Being closeted under 'don't ask, don't tell' was like being a ghost at your own funeral. Being trapped there and having to listen to people say not very nice things about you, right?" Alexander says.

Critics say "don't ask, don't tell" was a false compromise. About 14,000 people were kicked out of the military for their sexual orientation during the 17 years it was enforced. Some troops felt like they'd been ordered to lie, says Alexander.

"The way I handled it mostly was I moved a lot. I never stayed anywhere long enough for people to really get to know me too well," he says.

At least twice he nearly got caught. Rumors sprouted about how he wasn't dating women or had reported on others for using homophobic slurs. Alexander would jump on the next chance to move, even if it wasn't great for his career. One of those jumps happened near the financial crisis of 2008; he couldn't sell his house and had to walk away from the mortgage.

"In the 22 years I was in the military, I think I had 11 separate permanent duty assignments, and that's not including deployments," he said.

Then on Sept. 20, 2011, after along campaign by activists, the Obama administration ended the ban. In the years since, the integration of gay and lesbian troops has been heralded as a huge success with no effects on unit cohesion or combat readiness, according to the Pentagon. At the time it was uncharted territory, and Alexander, by then a lieutenant colonel, sat in a room full of senior officers talking about how to handle gay service members.

"I said, you know what, 'I'm a gay service member,' " he said. " 'Send them to me and I will handle it.' And that's how I came out."

For the rest of the day, Alexander says, colleagues came up to congratulate him on his courage and his sacrifice over decades. Though he'd already reached his 20-year mark for full retirement, Alexander ended up staying another year and a half.

"The rest of my time in the military was absolutely exceptional. These folks were wonderful, once the fear was gone, once the unknown was unmasked," he said. "After everything I'd been through, that validation in the end was very meaningful."

Bob Alexander, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, holds up a photo of when he was enlisted.
/ Keren Carríon/NPR
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Keren Carríon/NPR
Bob Alexander, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, holds up a photo of when he was enlisted.

Alexander knew that validation was missing for untold numbers of other veterans, so he then started a second career: as a lawyer.

Alexander's first project was with the San Francisco-based veterans charity Swords to Plowshares, trying to help gay veterans with other-than-honorable discharges. He just had to find them.

"I put up flyers all over the Bay Area in the gay bars, places I knew that these LGBTQ veterans would frequent. And I got nothing, no response at all," he said.

The reasons for that are complicated. Troops were often kicked out with euphemistic charges like "violation of an order" or "indecent behavior." So it's hard to say exactly how many veterans were expelled and how many might still be alive — and without the benefits they're due.

A Pentagon spokesperson said the military has granted 90% of applications to discharge review boards. But the total figure granted is 1,375, as of March 2023 – a tiny fraction of the number advocates believe are out there.

Besides the lengthy process of a military discharge review board, there's a much simpler path. With most other-than-honorable discharges, the VA can "characterize" a veteran's discharge as honorable for VA health care and most benefits (excluding the GI Bill home loan and education funds.)

"Bottom line, if you're a veteran or survivor or family member who was impacted by 'don't ask, don't tell,' come to VA. We're going to do everything in our power to get you the benefits you've earned and so richly deserve," says Sue Fulton, a VA assistant secretary.

Bottom line, if you're a veteran or survivor or family member who was impacted by 'don't ask, don't tell,' come to VA. We're going to do everything in our power to get you the benefits you've earned and so richly deserve.

The VA says it has changed the "character of discharge" to honorable for 73% of veterans who apply. But VA doesn't track the number of those that involved "don't ask, don't tell."

The Pentagon told NPR it has done extensive outreach in the years following repeal. But several current and former defense officials said that the Pentagon is uniquely able to take a more proactive approach – a deep dive through military records to find people and inform them of the opportunity to claim their benefits.

That's unlikely in the current political climate though. The Pentagon was pushed to ban drag shows on military bases, the VA has been criticized for flying pride flags, and some republicans in Congress are calling the U.S. military "woke" and trying to restrict all military transgender care and diversity initiatives.

Some vets don't want to be found.

There's another complication to repairing the damage done to veterans under "don't ask, don't tell" and earlier bans on LGB troops: Some vets don't want to be found. They may never have told their families. For many, revisiting the past is traumatic.

Bob Alexander learned this in his early attempts.

Alexander spent hours at Pride events in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., handing out his flyers, and he realized even the word "veteran" might have been off putting.

"They probably didn't even look at the flyers. Since they were told by the military, they were told by the VA, told by society that they were not veterans," he says .

Eventually, he looked where the need was most desperate — among the homeless. And that's where he met Stephan Steffanides, 20 years since his discharge from the Navy for being gay.

"I was in the street, living in the gutter, literally behind a trash can," says Steffanides.

Stephan Steffanides, who served aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln stationed at Norfolk, Va., is one of the veterans Alexander helped.
/ Stephan Steffanides
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Stephan Steffanides
Stephan Steffanides, who served aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln stationed at Norfolk, Va., is one of the veterans Alexander helped.

Steffanides had no idea the policy had changed in 2011, and that he was now eligible for VA housing and health care and disability. Anything involving the military made him anxious. When he saw Alexander's booth at a homelessness service fair, his boyfriend had to walk him there.

"I think Stephan had a panic attack," Alexander says. "Just approaching a nonprofit veteran service organization was traumatic for him."

Steffanides was shocked when Alexander and his colleagues said they could help.

"They told me, 'You know what? We don't leave our wounded on the battlefield. You served your country for two years and regardless of your discharge, we don't want to see you suffering,' " says Steffanides.

Upgrading Steffanides' paperwork with the Pentagon is still ongoing, but the process with the VA was done in just a matter of months.

"It was a simple letter from them saying ... 'For the purposes of VA, we find your service to be honorable,' " says Alexander. "Just that acknowledgement from the VA that he's a veteran was like a light shown down on him."

"It was spiritual for me," says Steffanides. "I was so, so proud. And it inspired me to be of service to others."

Steffanides now runs a support group in San Francisco for LGBTQ veterans, and records their oral histories.

"I can continue to be the person that I wanted to be when I was much younger and I had joined the service to serve my country. There's still ways I can do that," he said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.