‘What’s going to happen for us?’ These gay military veterans wonder what Biden’s new pardon means for them

The predawn silence was shattered by heavy banging on the doors of the US Army barracks in West Germany that morning in May 1988.

Mona McGuire and Karla Lehmann were handcuffed, pulled from their barracks, interrogated for hours and eventually kicked out of the Army for admitting to charges of sodomy and an indecent act to avoid a court martial and prison.

“I wasn’t going to prison at 19, 20 years old for loving another human being, for loving another female,” McGuire told CNN.

In the decades since, McGuire said, she has led “an honorable life” while overcoming her emotional scars. She lives in a Milwaukee suburb with her two sons and her wife. She has worked at a printing company for the last 35 years.

“I was able to recover and strong enough to carry on,” she said.

Lehmann retired in 2016 from the Milwaukee Police Department after 26 years on the job and is now a victim advocate for the Michigan State Police. She and McGuire remain friends.

“Here I’m sitting with this charge of sodomy and indecent acts on my federal record with the military. But I ended up going to the sensitive crimes division and investigating sexual assaults for half my career,” she told CNN.

“I ended up becoming a mentor and a teacher and I taught all over the states on how to conduct those investigations and how to interview people – which is kind of ironic because my interrogation with the military was brutal.”

Now, after President Joe Biden pardoned American veterans who were convicted under a military law that banned gay sex for more than 60 years, McGuire and Lehmann have been left wondering whether the announcement will affect service members, like them, who accepted less than honorable discharges rather than face court martial – a lasting stain on their military records.

Biden, in a statement on Wednesday, said he was “righting an historic wrong” by pardoning service members “who were convicted simply for being themselves.”

“It just leaves this void and this question mark of, ‘What’s going to happen for us?’” Lehmann said of the proclamation.

Many vets accepted bad discharges to avoid court martial

Biden’s proclamation will affect roughly 2,000 people, according to a US official. The pardon won’t automatically change the record of convicted veterans, but it will allow them to apply for a certificate that will help them receive withheld benefits.

“Our nation’s service members stand on the frontlines of freedom, and risk their lives in order to defend our country. Despite their courage and great sacrifice, thousands of LGBTQI+ service members were forced out of the military because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” Biden said. “This is about dignity, decency, and ensuring the culture of our Armed Forces reflect the values that make us an exceptional nation.”

The pardon specifically grants clemency to service members who were convicted under former Uniform Code of Military Justice Article 125 — which criminalized sodomy, including between consenting adults — between 1951 and 2013 when it was rewritten by Congress. It also applies to those who were convicted of attempting to commit those offenses.

A senior administration official told reporters they are also working to address cases in which LGBTQ+ service members were convicted under other UCMJ charges than Article 125, such as conduct unbecoming an officer. The official said individuals who may have been convicted of other charges “based on their sexual orientation or gender identity” can go through the normal pardon process at the Department of Justice.

What the proclamation means for McGuire and Lehmann is unclear at the moment, but their stories reflect the plight of veterans unfairly targeted for their sexual orientation.

“Right now, even with the pardon, the burden of proof and the burden to reach out and go through this process is completely on the veteran and I don’t think that’s fair,” said Christie Bhageloe, a pro bono attorney and director of The Veterans Consortium’s discharge upgrade program.

“I hold out hope that the White House will work with the Department of Defense and then just make this an automatic or easy process, rather than making veterans jump through more hoops,” said Bhageloe, who is representing McGuire and Lehmann.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction just stating out for the world to hear that these veterans did not do anything wrong and they should have that stain from their records removed but, practically, they need to make it easier.”

McGuire and Lehmann are among the thousands of service members forced out of the military because of their sexual orientation between the 1950s and 2011, when a law known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed by Congress.

Lt. Col. Ruth Castro, an Army spokesperson, said privacy laws prevented her from commenting on individual cases. And she referred CNN to a new Defense Department website about the pardon application process.

A service member’s discharge status can determine what Veterans Affairs benefits they are eligible for. A bad-conduct discharge, for example, given under general court martial, can make someone ineligible for services including a VA home loan, military pension and education benefits.

The pardon is separate from the Pentagon’s ongoing review of military records for those who were discharged based on their sexual orientation – which another US official said did not apply to convictions under the UCMJ. The Pentagon launched a new outreach campaign last September to reach more veterans who believe they “suffered an error or injustice” to have their military records reviewed.

To get their records changed under the pardon, veterans will need to complete an online application, which will go to their military service department. The department will review the individual’s court martial and service record and determine if they are eligible for the pardon. That determination will then be sent to the attorney general, acting through the Department of Justice’s pardon attorney, a US official explained.

The certificate of pardon does not automatically change the discharge status. With a certificate of pardon, the service member will then have to apply to their respective military department’s board of corrections to have their military records corrected.

Bhageloe said more clarity is needed on the pardons because the majority of veterans discharged before and during “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” were not “convicted” but instead accepted a bad discharge to avoid a court martial and possibly prison.

‘Embarrassing, humiliating, devastating’

McGuire and Lehmann were stationed with the 164th Military Police Company in West Germany when Army investigators burst into the barracks. They were handcuffed and driven to another base, where they said they were fingerprinted, had mugshots taken and were interrogated separately.

After seven or eight hours of what they described as humiliating and offensive questions about their private lives, McGuire and Lehmann said they were forced to confess and accept a discharge “for the good of the service – in lieu of trial by court-martial.”

“That decision was forced upon us during that seven- to eight-hour interrogation,” said McGuire, who was following in the footsteps of her father, a military police officer during World War II. He died when she was 7.

“I remember hyperventilating, being you know, upset, crying so much that I just couldn’t breathe at that point. My world was crushed. My dream was definitely crushed. My career was crushed. It was embarrassing, humiliating, devastating.”

McGuire eventually returned home to Mineola, Texas. Lehmann went home to Wisconsin.

“I’m coming home to a new me, a newfound, you know, part of myself that I don’t know very well, and I’m outed and I’m ashamed,” said Lehmann, whose grandfather was a World War II veteran.

“I’m embarrassed that I got discharged. I don’t know what it means for my future as a police officer. And it was just really, really challenging to navigate telling family and friends… I avoided people. I did not want to share my story.”

Apologies for ‘ruining your military career’

In January 2018, McGuire and Lehmann finally learned who had outed them. Lehmann had received a copy of a Facebook message that a woman who had been stationed with them originally sent to another soldier. Lehmann immediately texted a copy to McGuire.

“I just wanted to say how sorry I am!!! I had a pretty sheltered life growing up. I was never around (people) of a different race or around gays or lesbians,” the message read. “I was a terrible friend to you … I’ve always wanted to find you guys and apologize for ruining your military career.”

The woman wrote that her own military career ended not long after McGuire and Lehmann were kicked out of the Army.

“Sorry to say I’m not 100% lesbian. But I am bi. I miss you… Again I am so very sorry and hope you will forgive me,” she wrote in the message, which mentioned McGuire and Lehmann by name.

In 2022, McGuire filled out the paperwork in a bid to upgrade her discharge, which she described as “the most traumatic event in her life,” according to a record of the proceeding with the Army Board for Correction of Military Records. She wrote about her love for the country and the “humiliation” she has felt. She described “feeling worthless and alone” and falling into a deep depression that for a time stripped away her self-confidence.

“To date, she has dreams of being in the Army, dreaming she re-enlisted and was allowed to serve her country,” the document said. “She awakes and realizes it was a dream and the overwhelming sadness is again felt.”

McGuire received a response from the Department of the Army in a letter dated August 2, 2023: “I regret to inform you that the Army Board for Correction of Military Records denied your application.”

The denial letter said the board concluded in part there was “insufficient evidence to support the applicant had condition or experience that mitigated her misconduct.” It also cited insufficient evidence that she suffered from depression after her discharge and of her “post-service honorable conduct.”

McGuire, the letter said, admitted guilt to the charges and “voluntarily requested discharge … for the good of the service – in lieu of trial by court-martial.”

“After the seven to eight hours of brutal, intense interrogation and telling us we’re going to prison, we finally broke down and gave in,” McGuire told CNN.

Bhageloe said she is appealing McGuire’s denial for a discharge upgrade and helping prepare Lehmann’s application for an upgrade.

“I feel like this is the time. I am hopeful that something positive will come of this,” McGuire said of America’s latest attempt to right what Biden’s proclamation called a “historical injustice.”

CNN’s Haley Britzky, Oren Liebermann and Natasha Bertrand contributed to this story.

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