Just days before the thirty-fifth anniversary of Oklahoma resident Lisa Weiszmiller’s discharge for being a lesbian, the US Army reissued her discharge certificate to say that it was honorable rather than dishonorable.
The new certificate given to Weiszmiller, now fifty-three, is backdated to June 22, 1979.
“On paper,” noted military.com, “it’s just like the other than honorable discharge 35 years ago never happened.”
It is estimated that approximately a hundred thousand LGBT people were kicked out of the US armed forces between 1945 and 2011, when the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) finally enabled gay, lesbian, and bisexual (but not transsexual) people to serve openly.
Those who were kicked out of the army for reasons of sexual orientation were given a dishonorable discharge, which is an automatic disqualification for military benefits, including health services, from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Since DADT’s repeal, the damage done by the anti-gay policy is finally being addressed, and the US Defense Department now retroactively changes the records of veterans upon request, if they were fired from the service exclusively because of their orientation.
Though Weiszmiller’s discharge was upgraded to honorable after she appealed to the Army Boards of Correction for Military Records, now she has another battle to fight—for disability benefits and mental health treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which she says was caused by her treatment in the service and eventual discharge.
“Back then, the treatment was barbaric,” she said, according to military.com. She and another female soldier suspected to be gay were subjected to hours of interrogation and assigned punishment duties such as “mowing fields of grass with a hand sickle.”
Weiszmiller recalled that if drill sergeants and their troops came across her and the other soldier, “we would have to come to parade rest, and they would berate us. ‘These are queers! These are lesbians! Stay away from these homosexual women.’
“They tried everything they could to try to break us down to what they thought we were.”
After growing up in New Jersey, her military police training at Fort McClellan in Alabama was the definition of culture shock, not only in how badly gay people were treated, but black people. “I got a hell of an education down there in Alabama.”
The experience was “overwhelming,” she said, especially because she had joined hoping to become a military police officer. She was able to complete training and was ready to be posted to Germany when her life was turned upside down by the appearance of military police at the barracks, who told her and another soldier that they “weren’t going anywhere.”
Weiszmiller said, “They searched our lockers, found some personal letters from friends and decided they were going to kick us out for being gay.”
She continued, “They alluded to the fact that we had been at a party with a group of trainees on post, and it was all female. There was nothing crazy going on. We were a female company. Since we were all females there, they were watching us.
“From what I understand, they ended up kicking 62 people out from that company when it was all said and done. It was a big witch hunt, which is kind of what the Army did back then. We were fined a month’s pay for being gay. We were arrested and charged with homosexuality.”
The end result was that Weiszmiller and the other soldier were taken to the general’s office, where under threat of court-martial they were pressured into signing papers that said they were being discharged dishonorably.
Afterwards, Weiszmiller said, she “closed the door on that part of my life, never to reopen it again… My uncles and cousins were career Navy. Dad was Air Force. I was pretty much told not to rock the boat back then.”
She got on with her life as best she could, working first as an emergency medical technician and then as a nurse, but feels that the trauma from her experience in the military was a contributor to her developing “reckless tendencies and addictions,” including methamphetamine abuse, which led to getting into trouble with the law on multiple occasions.
In 2012, when she faced the possibility of prison, she decided to reopen the door to her past with the military: she asked, “What if I’m a veteran?” It prompted court personnel in Oklahoma County to get her into a diversion program for veterans that helped her change her life.
“I’m sober 27 months, and it’s different this time.” For one, she’s working on a new degree, a master’s in business administration, which she expects to get from Southern Nazarene University at the end of summer 2014.
The veterans diversion program required that Weiszmiller apply for as many veterans assistance programs as she could, which led to her request that her discharge be corrected to honorable, to allow her access to veteran’s benefits.
In the process, she learned what a difference thirty-five years can make. In 1979, a general told her that she was “a disgrace to the uniform.”
In 2014, she met the governor’s Cabinet secretary of veterans affairs, retired Major General Rita Aragon. Weiszmiller said, “She thanked me for my service.”