Regressive HIV Legislation Threatens Military Personnel

Picture of Karen
Johnson while in the Air Force by Karen Johnson

Editor's Note: Karen Johnson is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force who received top military honors during her 20 years of service as a nurse.

When I was on active duty a few years ago, I had the privilege of co-facilitating a support group for military personnel living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Though most were still in their 20s and 30s, the members of this group had spent most, if not all, of their adult lives in military service. They were experienced and dedicated.

I cannot imagine the anguish or betrayal they will feel at being booted out of the service August 31, if we fail to bring the necessary political pressure to get the U.S. House to join the Senate in repealing a new law requiring their discharge. The country they served so well will do them a great disservice. This disservice was spearheaded by Rep. Bob Dornan, R-Calif., and his mean-spirited congressional colleagues.

Although President Clinton signed the defense department appropriations bill February 10, he simultaneously issued a statement strongly opposing the provision that requires the immediate discharge of all military personnel living with HIV.

Presently, members of the military with HIV remain on active duty until medical indicators reveal they are unfit for active duty. Once determined medically unfit, military personnel are medically retired and receive full benefits for themselves and their families. The new legislation requires all military personnel with HIV to be discharged by August 31 without pension and without health care benefits for their families.

Because of the mandatory testing done in the military, personnel with HIV are often identified early and can expect many more years of productive life. The Defense Department reports that 1,049 of the military people serving this country are living with HIV.

Of this total, 567 HIV positive people are married and 57 are women. They are parents of 769 children, have served this country for an average of 10 years, have excellent job performance evaluations and are deemed fit to continue their service.

The new law mandating discharge is blatant discrimination. Many members of the military suffer chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hepatitis lupus or hypertension and remain on active duty. If a person with a chronic illness is determined to be medically unfit for active duty then they are medically retired. Why are military personnel with HIV treated differently and punitively?

In early March, I attended a White House meeting to discuss efforts to repeal this punitive provision. Since then, Sens. William Cohen, R-Maine, and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., were successful in getting the Senate unanimously to repeal the HIV provision.

Although Reps. Jane Harman, D-Calif., and Peter Torkildsen, R-Mass., who also attended the meeting, picked up 156 co-sponsors of a similar repeal bill by the end of March, they were encountering opposition to their effort as this edition went to press.

The item is part of the omnibus appropriations bill being negotiated in conference committee, and House conferees are resistant to the repeal.

The Pentagon supports the repeal efforts. So does the American Medical Association and the Justice Department, which says the provision is unconstitutional. But until the law is changed, these 1,049 and any subsequent military personnel with HIV will be discharged.

You can support the repeal efforts by contacting your members of Congress and asking them to support repeal of the provision that is now part of the omnibus appropriations bill (H.R. 3019).

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