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Congressman plans to return honor to gay and lesbian discharged servicemembers

NEW YORK -- A bill in the making could change military discharges of gay and lesbian soldiers, prior to the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," to honorable status.

New York Congressman Steve Israel plans to introduce legislation that could retract the dishonorable discharges and allow these veterans to receive medical and other benefits, according to The Associated Press.

Israel announced the bill during an appearance at the Long Island Pride Parade. He was joined by World War II veteran Robert O. Hawkins Jr., who said he was dishonorably discharged because he was gay.

“They said, ‘We have proof you are a homosexual, and you can either resign your commission or face a court martial,’” Hawkins said. “I resigned. I had no choice, really.”

According to Israel, 31,000 military personnel were given discharges because of their sexual orientation.

“I lost everything, and the fact that I did something sexual that they didn’t like – totally unfair,” Hawkins told 1010 WINS news radio. “I did absolutely nothing dishonorable.”

Dishonorable discharges take away all veteran benefits. According to a PDF posted on the official Oregon state website, which explains types of military discharges, dishonorable discharges are “universally regarded as shameful,” and it is difficult for someone who received this discharge to obtain post-service employment.

In some cases the right to vote and the right to receive governmental assistance are lost. Other losses include inability to find work at a state or governmental level and to receive bank loans. Government loans and grants for college are also unavailable.

According to Sean Sala, Navy veteran and an organizer of the military contingent for last year’s San Diego Pride Parade, changing the discharge status is an issue that should be addressed by executive order and not through congressional vote.

“We are asking for a vote on a clear issue that has been repealed because it was immoral and against core military values,” Sala said. “Ultimately, the Obama administration should have already begun steps to do this.”

Israel’s bill proposal comes months after ACLU litigation won another battle in gay and lesbian rights in the military, earning full separation pay for servicemembers who were involuntarily separated from the military because of their sexual orientation.

Separation pay is given to those discharged involuntarily to help ease transition to civilian life, according to the ACLU. But, military policy had cut separation pay in half if the discharge, honorable or not, was for “homosexuality.”