In her HBO documentary Public Speaking, the brilliant and legendary wit, Fran Liebowitz, has a line that goes something like, “I am stunned that the two greatest desires apparently of people involved in the gay rights movement are gay marriage and gays on the military. Really? To me these are the two most confining institutions on the planet.”
Say what you will, the fight to fight has been a focus not only of the gay rights movement but of the women’s movement, as well. Last week, a federal lawsuit was filed in California challenging the Defense Department’s “formal exclusion of women from most direct ground combat positions.”
According to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, the sweeping restriction based on gender is unconstitutional because it is not justified by a specific governmental objective, as the U.S. Supreme Court has required. Women effectively serve in direct combat, the suit said, often without the level of training provided to their male counterparts or the recognition that would enable them to advance.
“The policy has the effect of closing off whole career fields for women,” said Ariela Migdal, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Women Rights Project. “We demand that the U.S. military bring its policy into line with modern society.”
We certainly hope they win. But we also hope they don’t end up like Vietnam Vet John Shepherd Jr. who, reports the New York Times today, is also suing the military in a class action, “arguing that he and other Vietnam veterans had post-traumatic stress disorder when they were issued other-than-honorable discharges” and is asking that their discharges be upgraded. Here’s what happened to John after enlisting in 1968 and being sent to the Mekong Delta:
Within a month, his patrol was ambushed, and Shepherd responded by tossing a hand grenade into a bunker that killed several enemy soldiers. The Army awarded him a Bronze Star with a valor device, one of its highest decorations.
Yet the honor did little to assuage Shepherd’s sense of anxiousness and futility about the war. A few weeks after his act of heroism, he said, his platoon leader was killed by a sniper as he tried to help Shepherd out of a canal. It was a breaking point: His behavior became erratic, and at some point he simply refused to go on patrol.
“I never felt fear like I felt when he got shot," Shepherd said last week.
After a court-martial, the Army discharged Shepherd under other-than-honorable conditions, then known as an undesirable discharge. At the time, he was happy just to be a civilian again. But he came to rue that discharge, particularly after his claim for veterans benefits was denied because of it.
The lawsuit, which was prepared with the help of Yale law students, “could have a wide impact.”
The Yale team says that its review of records from 2003 to 2012 shows that 154 Vietnam-era veterans petitioned the Army to upgrade discharges because of PTSD, but that only two were successful. Yet the Army Board of Corrections for Military Records granted upgrades nearly half of the time for other cases.
The students estimate that more than a quarter million Vietnam-era veterans were discharged under other-than-honorable conditions, and that thousands of those probably had PTSD. Their suit names as defendants the secretaries for the Army, Air Force and Navy. Vietnam Veterans of America, the veterans service organization, is joining the case as a plaintiff today. Discharges that are other than honorable can make it harder for veterans to find work and also disqualify them for veterans benefits.
The fight to fight shouldn’t be so hard, and then turn into a fight to live, earn a living and get proper care. Our Vets, and the nation, deserve better.