Victory for Transgender Veterans

In 2012, during a panel on transgender military issues convened by my organization, The LGBT Bar, HuffingtonPost reporter Jennifer Bendery asked the legal experts we had convened for the day a simple, but important, question: If they could make one change for transgender veterans, what would it be?

The answer was clear.

"Bridget Wilson, an attorney who has represented transgender people in military and civil matters for 20 years, said if there's one thing she sees over and over again with her clients, it is complications stemming from their DD214 form, better known as the document that soldiers receive upon retirement or discharge from the military," Bendery reported.

"You have to produce it for almost everything you do in life," Wilson told HuffingtonPost, noting that the form is used in everything from seeking a home loan, to applying for a job and even as an identity document for taking the bar exam.

In short, Form DD214 is a form of identification that follows a veteran from the end of their service to, quite literally, the end of their life. (It is what determines the name that appears on grave markers in military cemeteries.) So having a document on which your name doesn't match the name on your other documents - and doesn't comport with your outward appearance in many cases - can be problematic, and lead to discrimination in nearly every aspect for a veteran's life.

Now, all that has changed.

Following Bendery's question at The LGBT Bar's 2012 Annual Conference, we convened a Military Law Working Group, comprised of the most experienced minds in military law. They, in turn, issued a groundbreaking report, pointing out how the services could issue new DD214 forms for transgender veterans and illustrating why they should do so.

Today, nearly two years later, the military has said it agrees. In a series of landmark decisions - based on the legal arguments set forth in the Working Group's original report - the Army and Navy have agreed to issue new paperwork for transgender veterans. The decisions come in response not only to the initial LGBT Bar report, but also in answer to filings made on behalf of three veterans - two Army, and one Navy vet - by The LGBT Bar's pro bono counsel.

The Army Board for the Correction of Military Records (BCMR) and Navy Board for Correction of Naval Records (BCNR) will issue new military discharge paperwork to these distinguished transgender veterans, reflecting their correct names and identities. The veterans - Retired Army First Sergeant (Promotable) Dayna Walker; Retired Army Major Evan Young; and former Lieutenant Paula M. Neira, a Naval Academy Graduate - have distinguished military careers. Walker has over 25 years of military service experience, serving in various capacities as a Military Police Officer, Special Reaction Team Commander and within the United States Army Recruiting Command. Young served as media officer for NORAD and USNORTHCOM. He was also a signal NCO at Fort Polk, Louisiana and at an attack helicopter brigade in Germany. Neira graduated with distinction from the United States Naval Academy, qualified as a Surface Warfare Officer and served in mine warfare combat during Operation Desert Storm.

Paula, Evan and Dayna have served with honor and distinction. Now, at long last, our country is beginning to treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve.

All of us at The Bar are extraordinarily proud of this win. It reflects what we do best: Bringing together the best legal minds to strategize about how we can resolve difficult legal questions for our community. And it underscores that, whatever jokes our reputations may be the brunt of, there are lawyers who are working, every day, to change lives.

Now, for the next phase of our work, we must ensure all veterans, from all services, benefit from today's win. As of today, there is no known written policy which insists future requests for new DD214s must be granted. DoD should remedy that, quickly, by making clear that this win is a win for everyone.

In the letter announcing their decision, the BCMR noted that, "Transgender veterans encounter substantial burdens in obtaining post-service benefits because their names, and the gender implied by them, recorded on discharge documents no longer match their legal names."

"Without a DD Form 214 that conforms to other identity documents," they conclude, "transgender veterans may also be subjected to an increased risk of employment discrimination because of their gender identity, denial of access to healthcare, and harassment and physical harm."

That's a powerful statement from a major government agency, and it underscores why it is imperative the Administration take action now to end such discrimination.

The wins announced this week are a meaningful step in that right direction, and set the stage for a change that can make a huge difference in the lives of so many of America's veterans.