Just*in Time: HIV & the Military

Photo by Jessica Bolton

Since I’m a veteran of the military (a disabled Air Force vet) there are several dates throughout the year that touch me: Memorial Day, to remember all who have fallen in the line of duty, Veterans Day. to remember all of us who have served in the military, and then there is the Fourth of July, when we remember how the United States of American was able to fight off the British to gain its independence. I also remember all those who are currently serving.

Often I come across people who are unclear about what happens or what might happen to someone who becomes HIV-positive while in the military. Let me set the facts straight and also give you my take about military policy.

HIV-positive=No Admittance to the military: Section 5-3-a states: “Applicants for accession who have no military status of any kind at the time of testing and who are confirmed HIV infected will not be enlisted or appointed in any component of the Army.”

Even though we presently know that Undetectable = Untransmittable, people still live in fear of acquiring HIV. But also, the concern could be that there will be someone who doesn’t take their own medications to stay undetectable and might transmit the virus. Sex, however, is a two-way and sometimes three-way street. We are all responsible for our own sex lives.

HIV-positive=Not Deployable: Many of us who join the military have dreams of being deployed to other countries. Some of us also long to go to a hot spot where there is combat in order to fight for our country. When you, as a member of the military, are diagnosed as HIV-positive, that will not happen. Again, even though we know that those living with HIV can take care of themselves and respond to meds to the point of viral suppression, policy is still driven by fear. Positive soldiers will not be deployed or assigned overseas, nor will they be permitted to perform official duties overseas for any duration of time. Soldiers confirmed to be HIV-positive while stationed overseas will be reassigned to the United States. Some policy is changing; according to StarsandStripes.com, the Navy allows HIV-positive sailors and Marines to be placed at some military installations outside of the United States, and on certain large ships.

PrEP=Positive Change: Since the FDA approval of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), and its availability in healthcare settings, there has been a more sex-positive attitude among those educated about HIV prevention and harm reduction. PrEP is available to military personnel, but not without difficulty. In general, the prevention option paves the way for there to be less stigma for military personnel who are diagnosed with HIV.

Different Perspectives on HIV Prevention: The Navy allows its personnel to take PrEP. According to Military.com, Air Force military personnel, however, have been denied PrEP, with officials citing safety concerns. The Air Force requires a waiver for its pilots on flying status to have a prescription for PrEP. Yet, according to reports, no Air Force waivers have been created since PrEP’s approval in 2012.

Money=Power: According to Military.com, the Air Force invests between $3 to $12 million into each pilot over the course of his or her career; now add HIV medications to that. The military may not be willing to put up the money to pay for HIV preventative measure such as PrEP, let alone anti-HIV regimens.

As a disabled 9/11 veteran who is HIV positive I feel the military has done a major disservice to those who have acquired HIV while serving in the military and those of us who are already positive and want to join the military. Individuals living with HIV and engaged in care have the right to serve and fight for their country. Regulations that prevent HIV prophylaxis from being accessible to any military personnel is a disgrace. One can only hope that the military will do better in treating its personnel better—with compassion and goodness.

Justin B. Terry-Smith, MPH, DrPH, has been fighting the good fight since 1999. He’s garnered recognition and awards for his work, but he’s more concerned about looking for new ways to transform society for the better than resting on his laurels. He started up in gay rights and HIV activism in 2005, published an HIV-themed children’s book, I Have A Secret (Creative House Press) in 2011, and created his own award-winning video blog called, “Justin’s HIV Journal”: justinshivjournal.blogspot.com. Visit his main Web site at www.justinbsmith.com. He welcomes your questions at [email protected].