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Congress should fix the damage caused by drumming gays out of the military

The charitable view is that the military – and society, in general – just didn’t know what it was doing when it spent decades shaming gays and lesbians into the closet. It was, literally, a form of prejudice, and the consequences for many who were drummed out of the military have been terrible. It’s time to make amends, and a mechanism exists, through the federal Restore Honor to Service Members Act. Congress should pass it quickly.

Sponsored by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, the measure would help service members who were discharged for no other reason than their sexual orientation upgrade their military records to reflect their honorable service. It’s not simply that this is the least the military can do for these veterans – though it surely is that – but it is important to their ability to secure the benefits that should be theirs, including health care.

There is no reason now other than stubborn refusal or institutional lethargy to deny these men and women an honorable discharge, though even that cannot truly atone for the wrongheaded politics, threats and bullying that drove up to 100,000 service members out of the military. Many lived in fear and shame for decades because society’s misapprehensions matched those of the military. Society, we now know, was wrong.

The military isn’t being asked to account for the problems of society in general, only for its own now-abandoned policy of humiliating and forcing gays and lesbians out of the service. Indeed, such a policy already exists within the Obama administration. It generally grants an honorable discharge to veterans who were driven out for homosexuality unless there were “aggravating” factors, such as misconduct. About 80 percent of the 500 requests submitted over the past four years have been granted. It’s a start.

But for many veterans, the task is far from simple. Records may be old and hard to locate. The process can drag on, threatening the health of a veteran who needs medical care. It is important to expedite this process and there seems little reason not to do so.

The bill sponsored by Gillibrand and Schatz would accomplish that. It would grant blanket upgrades to nearly all veterans who were discharged for being gay. It has been stalled in Congress for two years and supporters see little prospect of it moving forward this year.

By all logic, this is the time to act. The military has dropped its ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military, and earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. The changes reflect those in society generally, and there is no good reason not to correct the records of former service members who served their country honorably and even bravely. That is to say: We should treat them as we should treat all of the country’s veterans – with appreciation and respect.

Unfortunately, Congress seems little interested in this simple act of decency. Too many members either still believe homosexuality to be sinful or benefit politically from continuing to treat gays and lesbians as outcasts. It’s shameful, but then, shame doesn’t typically sway this Congress.

Men and women served with honor and were trampled by a military and a country that didn’t understand the nature of homosexuality. That’s no longer an excuse. It’s time to make these veterans whole. Congress needs to take the lead.