‘Righting an Historic Wrong’: President Biden to Pardon LGBTQ Veterans Convicted of Crimes Over Sexual Orientation
Historic Action Could Impact Thousands of Veterans Thrown Out of Military Between 1951 and 2013

In a historic move to address a legacy of discrimination in the U.S. military, President Joe Biden on Wednesday will announce a plan to pardon thousands of LGBTQ veterans who were criminally charged and forced from the service because of their sexual orientation.

The news comes less than a week after The War Horse published the story of Army military police officers Mona McGuire and Karla Lehmann, who were dragged from their barracks, interrogated and forced to confess to sodomy charges after someone in their platoon outed them as gay. Thirty-six years later, they still carry the stigma.

Now, it appears that could change.

“Today, I am righting an historic wrong by using my clemency authority to pardon many former service members who were convicted simply for being themselves,” Biden said in a statement. “Some of these patriotic Americans were subject to court-martial, and have carried the burden of this great injustice for decades.”

The White House estimated thousands of veterans convicted from 1951 to 2013 could qualify, but the pardons aren’t automatic. Veterans must apply through the Defense Department for certificates of pardon that clear the way for VA benefits. Senior administration officials say they are working on how to best reach out to eligible veterans.

Mona McGuire, left, and Karla Lehmann were newly enlisted in the Army when they met in 1987 while stationed in West Germany. (Photos courtesy of Mona McGuire and Karla Lehmann)

The pardons come amid a growing chorus from veterans groups and LGBTQ advocates calling on the Biden administration to upgrade the discharges of gay veterans who faced the most severe penalties for consensual same-sex relationships. 

“I’m really excited, just to move the needle in such a big way,” says Christie Bhageloe, an attorney with the pro bono The Veterans Consortium. She represents McGuire and many other LGBTQ  veterans saddled with what are commonly referred to as “bad paper” discharges.

The Army Made Her Plead Guilty or Face Prison for Being Gay. She’s Still Paying the Price.

In 1988, Army interrogators forced McGuire and Lehmann and two other female soldiers to admit guilt to charges of sodomy and indecent acts to avoid a court martial and possible prison time. Despite years of efforts by the military and VA to acknowledge and overcome decades of discrimination, many gay service members like McGuire and Lehmann still carry less than honorable discharges “in lieu of general court martial.” 

It’s a distinction that has kept them from receiving VA benefits, and McGuire recalls being told never to set foot on military property again. For more than 30 years, only her closest friends knew why she left the Army. 

Mona McGuire was 19 when she started as a military police officer. Less than a year later, the Army ended her career "under other than honorable conditions" and "for the good of the service in lieu of court-martial" when she admitted during an interrogation that she was gay. (Photo and DD-214 Certificate of Discharge courtesy of Mona McGuire)

Mona McGuire was 19 when she started as a military police officer. Less than a year later, the Army ended her career “under other than honorable conditions” and “for the good of the service in lieu of court-martial” when she admitted during an interrogation that she was gay. (Photo by Ebony Cox/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

McGuire said she’s still unclear how Biden’s announcement will ultimately impact her, but she has hope that her military story may finally find a better ending. 

“I’ve been crying. I’ve got shivers, you know, chills,” she said. “I feel relief.”

White House officials wouldn’t say why the president was taking the action now, just a day before his first debate with former president and GOP nominee Donald Trump. For years, veterans groups, such as the American Legion, have supported efforts to improve access to health care and other benefits for LGBTQ veterans.

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“This is about dignity, decency, and ensuring the culture of our Armed Forces reflect the values that make us an exceptional nation,” Biden said in his statement. “We have a sacred obligation to all of our service members – including our brave LGBTQI+ service members: to properly prepare and equip them when they are sent into harm’s way, and to care for them and their families when they return home. Today we are making progress in that pursuit.”

When asked for a reaction to the president’s announcement, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense stated they had no comment, but pointed veterans to a newly created website about the process of seeking a pardon.

The pardons only apply to veterans convicted under a military law that criminalized “unnatural” copulation, meaning LGBTQ veterans who faced charges of indecent acts or conduct unbecoming still may not benefit. While the landmark clemency will open the door to a host of VA benefits, it will not automatically upgrade the so-called “bad paper” discharges that still plague McGuire, Lehmann and thousands of gay veterans.

Karla Lehman spent 25 years on the force of the Milwaukee Police Department.

Karla Lehmann spent 25 years on the force of the Milwaukee Police Department. (Photo courtesy of Karla Lehmann)

Bhageloe, McGuire’s attorney, says in her “dream world,” she wishes the president would go one step further, and hand the names of pardoned individuals over to the military review boards to automatically “fix the paperwork.” The upgrade process is notoriously arduous, advocates say. 

Late last week, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled in favor of LGBTQ veterans’ right to push forward with a class action lawsuit that would compel the Defense Department to upgrade “less than honorable discharges” given to thousands of LGBTQ veterans who served under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which spanned from 1994 to 2011. But even that would leave out untold numbers of vets like McGuire and Lehmann who were thrown out of the Army in the late 1980s and others as far back as the 1950s.

How many fall into that category is still unclear. The Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard have all delayed responding or denied a Freedom of Information Act request by The War Horse for court-martial records connected to cases of service members prosecuted for sodomy, conduct unbecoming, and indecent acts.

Last year, McGuire applied for an upgrade to her discharge, but the Army Board for Correction of Military Records denied her request, stressing that she had admitted guilt, requested her discharge over court-martial, and failed to offer compelling evidence that she suffered from depression following her discharge.

Vets like McGuire also fell outside the guidelines to qualify for a much-heralded VA reform that kicked in this week, promising access to VA benefits for thousands of veterans who left the military with other than honorable discharges. 

During a news conference Tuesday, The War Horse asked VA Secretary Denis McDonough about the department’s decision to continue locking out veterans like McGuire who accepted an other than honorable discharge “in lieu of general court martial.” McDonough insisted his message to veterans is “that we can and want to upgrade your character of discharge for other than honorables.” He said “nobody” is ruled out, except for people with dishonorable discharges. 

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But Dana Montalto, an attorney with the Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School, says McDonough’s statement “doesn’t make sense.” 

VA could’ve opened the door to all veterans with other than honorable discharges, she said, but chose to keep barriers in place that will disqualify certain veterans. The department’s own estimates have shown that of the 500,000 veterans who carry an “other than honorable” discharge, it is likely only about 4,200 would qualify for VA benefits over the next 10 years based on this latest reform.  

But Biden’s pardons may now change that, clearing the way for more LGBTQ vets. 

Lehmann is still cautious. She wants the pardons to have a huge impact, but she spent her career as a police officer and forensic interviewer and is waiting for more details to be clear the pardons won’t leave out gay veterans who admitted guilt to avoid a court martial, like she and McGuire.

“I’ve spent my whole career deciphering criminal code, elements of crime,” she said. “I’m not an attorney, but if I read it like an attorney would, I’m hopeful but not convinced.”  

This War Horse investigation was reported by Anne Marshall-Chalmers and edited by Mike Frankel. Coverage of veterans’ health is made possible in part by a grant from the A-Mark Foundation.

Tell us your story: If you or someone you know is a veteran who was forced out of the military because of your sexual orientation, please consider sharing your story with us at tips@thewarhorse.org.


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Anne Marshall-Chalmers

Anne Marshall-Chalmers is an investigative journalist at The War Horse where she covers the health of veterans, active-duty servicemembers, and military families. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, Inside Climate News, Civil Eats, USA Today, NPR, and the Los Angeles Times.

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