Thirty-five years after being kicked out of the U.S. Army for being gay, an Oklahoma City woman has won her fight to have her discharge upgraded from “other than honorable” to “honorable.”
“It’s crazy,” said Lisa Weiszmiller, 53, proudly displaying an honorable discharge certificate backdated to June 22, 1979.
On paper, it’s just like the other than honorable discharge 35 years ago never happened.
Weiszmiller said her next step is to try to get the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department to pay for a post-traumatic stress disorder service disability.
The U.S. Army administratively discharged 8,446 service members for being gay from 1983 through 2010, said Army Pentagon spokesman Wayne Hall, citing a 27-year period for which statistics are readily available.
An estimated 100,000 service members across all the U.S. Armed Forces were discharged based on their sexual orientation between World War II and September 2011, according to figures cited in the Restore Honor to Service Members Act introduced in the U.S. Senate this year.
Policies toward gay military service have changed dramatically in recent decades. In 1993, a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy replaced a ban on gay military service. That policy later was repealed, and restrictions on gay military service were lifted in 2011.
Weiszmiller was able to get her discharge upgraded to honorable through an appeal to the Army Boards of Correction for Military Records. Data was not readily available concerning how many former service members discharged for being gay successfully have appealed and had their discharges upgraded.
‘Treatment was barbaric’
Weiszmiller believes she suffers from PTSD not as the result of combat, but because of the intentional humiliating treatment Army officials inflicted on her because she was gay.
“Back then, the treatment was barbaric,” Weiszmiller said.
She and another female soldier were accused of being gay, interrogated for hours and assigned extra duties as punishment — including mowing fields of grass with a hand sickle.
Drill sergeants would march their troops around the post, “and if they came upon us, they would stop their troops, and we would have to come to parade rest, and they would berate us.”
“These are queers! These are lesbians! Stay away from these homosexual women,” she painfully recalled the taunts. “They tried everything they could to try to break us down to what they thought we were.”
Weiszmiller said she grew up in New Jersey and that her military police training at Fort McClellan, Ala., during 1978 and 1979 was a culture shock — not just in the treatment of gays but blacks, as well.
“I learned what racism was down there,” she said, recalling a visit to a bar where the waiters refused to serve black friends.
“I got a hell of an education down there in Alabama,” she said.
The whole experience was overwhelming to a 19-year-old woman, who joined the Army with the hopes of turning it into a military career.
“I joined the Army in 1978 to be a military policeman,” she said, adding that she did everything in her power during training to become the best military policeman possible.
Weiszmiller said she had completed training and was ready to be processed out to Germany when military police showed up at the barracks and told her and another female soldier they weren’t going anywhere.
“They searched our lockers, found some personal letters from friends and decided they were going to kick us out for being gay,” she said.
Weiszmiller said the justification for the search was shaky, at best.
“They alluded to the fact that we had been at a party with a group of trainees on post, and it was all female,” she said. “There was nothing crazy going on. We were a female company. Since we were all females there, they were watching us.”
“From what I understand, they ended up kicking 62 people out from that company when it was all said and done,” she said. “It was a big witch hunt, which is kind of what the Army did back then.”
“We were fined a month’s pay for being gay,” she said. “We were arrested and charged with homosexuality.”
Ultimately, Weiszmiller said she and the soldier arrested at the same time were brought to the general’s office and coerced into signing their other than honorable discharge papers under threat of court- martial.
At that point, Weiszmiller said she “closed the door on that part of my life, never to reopen it again” for more than 30 years.
“My uncles and cousins were career Navy. Dad was Air Force. I was pretty much told not to rock the boat back then,” she said.
Weiszmiller went on with her life, working as an emergency medical technician for a while and as a nurse for 20 years. She said she believes her military experience left her traumatized in a way that contributed to her having reckless tendencies and addictions. Methamphetamine abuse got her into repeated scrapes with the law.
“Methamphetamine is the devil’s drug. ... When addiction rears its ugly head, we’re like a tornado: We just uproot everything in our path and ruin all the lives around us,” she said.
It was the threat of prison in 2012 that prompted Weiszmiller to reconnect with her military past.
“I asked, ‘What if I’m a veteran?” she said, adding that the simple question prompted Oklahoma County prosecutors and defense attorneys to steer her into a veterans diversion program that has helped her turn her life around.
“Divine intervention in the guise of David Prater,” she calls it now. “Our district attorney has a soft spot for veterans.”
“I’m sober 27 months, and it’s different this time,” she said, adding she expects to get her master of business administration degree from Southern Nazarene University in about eight weeks.
Weiszmiller said one of the requirements of the veterans diversion program was that she seek whatever veterans assistance was available, which prompted her to request that her discharge be upgraded so she would qualify for benefits.
“I’m not asking for unreasonable things,” she said. “I’m just asking for the ability to get medical treatment (and disability benefits).”
The turnaround in the military’s attitude toward gays has been dramatic, Weiszmiller said.
Thirty-five years ago, Weiszmiller appeared before a general who told her she was “a disgrace to the uniform.”
Recently, she met retired Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, the governor’s Cabinet secretary of veterans affairs, through the veterans diversion program.
“She thanked me for my service,” Weiszmiller said. “That’s the dichotomy of the whole military service right there.”