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Kicked out of the Air Force for a kiss: Despite repeal of 'Don't ask, don't tell' many still feel sting

Courtesy Brian Henley

Brian Henley during his Air Force days.

Brian Henley’s life plan changed with a kiss.

An aspiring air traffic controller, he was a 22-year-old airman in 1994 out partying with friends at the Enlisted Club on the Royal Air force Base in  Mildenhall, United Kingdom.

He and his friends, he said, were laughing it up and talking when, in an act he said he doesn’t even remember, he kissed one of his fellow male airmen.

“I was drunk,” Henley, who lives in Clermont, Fla., told NBC News. “I don’t even remember it. My straight friends told me later it wasn’t even true kiss, just a joke.”

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Still, that kiss would provide the proof military investigators would need to kick him out of the service. He said he had been investigated before for being gay, but investigators weren’t able to come up with any proof. Plus, he said, he had the backing of a lot of straight military members. But a friend disclosed in a classroom discussion that Henley was gay, and then was pressured into telling about that kiss that the military deemed a “homosexual act” on Henley's discharge papers.   

By engaging a civilian lawyer he was able to gain an honorable discharge. But he was denied GI Benefits that he paid into, and was kicked out of the Air Force with $2,000 in his bank account and even unable to collect state unemployment in his home state of California.

Even though the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays in the military was repealed a year ago, on Sept. 20, 2011, thousands of men and women who served and were kicked out for their sexual orientation still feel the sting of the policy. For many, like Henley, their lives took a much different path than they would have otherwise.

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Henley, for example, finally was able to get on his feet and complete college and is now studying to be a paralegal in Florida, but he has incurred some $25,000 in student loan debt that he otherwise would not have had if he had been able to complete his service.

Now an activist on gay issues in the Orlando area, Henley, 45, has spent the past 18 years fighting to receive those GI bill benefits to no avail. He even sent a letter to President Obama, but was referred back to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which pointed out that he had never completed his term of service, and that the 10-year window to claim the benefit had expired.

Of course the reason he didn’t complete his term of service was that he was gay.

According to a comprehensive Defense Department review of policy on gays in the military, published on November 2010, more than 32,000 service members were separated from the military due to homosexuality or homosexual conduct under "don’t ask don’t tell" and its predecessor policy. Of those, more than 13,000 were "under don’t ask don’t tell."

Generally, the Department of Defense doesn’t provide retroactive compensation unless authorized by Congress. And that doesn’t look like it is in the works, according to legal experts.

“Repeal was an enormous step forward for gay and lesbian military service members. I don’t think we can underestimate the importance of it. But it intentionally was not designed to remedy past wrongs,” David McKean, legal director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network told NBC News. “It didn’t attempt that and doesn’t do that.”

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Anyone who was kicked out under "don’t ask, don’t tell" or the regulatory ban that preceded it can apply to join up again. But they don’t get the time they lost, the back pay for the time they would have served or other benefits they would have received had they stayed in the military.

Though the Defense Department doesn’t allow the collection of educational benefits or back pay, those service members kicked out under the policies are eligible for medical benefits if they received an honorable discharge, Randal Noller, Department of Veteran’s Affairs spokesman, said.

“For the people that werekicked out under the regulatory ban or for DADT, that was an incredibly damaging event in thousands of people’s lives,” McKean said. “That has continuing lasting consequences. That’s just something the repeal couldn’t have remedied unless it was a much broader bill."

The next step in moving to full equality for gays in the military is recognition of the spouses of homosexual service members. The Defense of Marriage Act prevents the military from recognizing same-sex spouses.

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However, family readiness has always been considered mission critical in the military. That’s why it provides health care for families, deployment support services and moving assistance when service members are transferred among bases.

For now, spouses of same sex couples are cut out of the support and benefit system. They can’t even go on the base to go the grocery store because they are not given base identification.

That, according to activists, has set up a two-tiered system within the military, with heterosexual spouses taken care of but homosexual spouses cut out of that support.

The Democratic Party has long supported repeal of the 1996 act. President Barack Obama vowed not to defend DOMA in court, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., unsuccessfully introduced legislation to end it.

Meanwhile, activists hope that more administrative measures could help the spouses of gay service members, such as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordering that base IDs be issued for spouses.

As for Henley, he is happy that the new policy is going so well but thinks someone should be looking to remedy situations such as his.

“For people like me that have already been discharged, there is nobody lobbying for us,” he said. “If I would have already paid off my student loan debt, I don’t think it would bother me so much. But when I get a monthly statement showing that debt and I know I shouldn’t have it, that’s what’s kept it on my mind all these years.”

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