Overturning Pentagon Restrictions On Troops With HIV?
Army National Guard Sgt. Nick Harrison, one of several service members challenging the U.S. military policy that prevents HIV-positive troops from deploying or becoming officers, filed suit against the Army in 2018. Sgt. Harrison served more than a decade in the Army National Guard, including multiple deployments as an infantryman; later, after completing law school, he accepted a job with the D.C. Guard’s Judge Advocate General Corps. But because he had tested positive for HIV about a year prior, he was denied the job. Giving him the position would violate “the military’s ban on people with HIV becoming officers,” his superiors told him.
In 2018, the U.S. Air Force put that policy on steroids, ordering some airmen with HIV to be discharged, despite their commanders’ support and their doctors’ assurances that they were fit for duty. Two airmen sued the Air Force, using the pseudonyms Richard Roe and Victor Voe, with the assistance of Lambda Legal and the Modern Military Association of America, to overturn the discharges.
In 2019, presiding Judge Leonie Brinkema of the Easter District of Virginia issued an injunction blocking the discharges while legal challenges continue [A&U, March 2019]. She calculated that the plaintiffs would likely succeed in their claims that their discharge violates the Constitution. In January 2020, an appeals court upheld that injunction [A&U, March 2020]. On August 4, 2020, Judge Brinkema will consider ruling on the case without a formal trial.
“I’m kind of the prime textbook example of why this policy is ludicrous,” Sgt. Harrison told The American Homefront Project. “It seems moving me over to a courtroom and letting me practice law would probably be the best use of my skills, probably in the best interest of the Army. But because they have this sort of outdated policy, they say, ‘No, we don’t make any exceptions for HIV.’”
“These cases are designed to achieve a change in policies that will affect all service members living with HIV,” Scott Schoettes, Counsel and HIV Project Director at Lambda Legal, told the Project. “If Plaintiffs are successful in taking down the categorical bar and replacing it with a set of medical criteria allowing people living with HIV to deploy, then the policies preventing their enlistment, appointment, commissioning, and retention should all fall as well.”
The American Homefront Project is a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Their funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Check them out at https://americanhomefront.wunc.org/.
—Reporting by Hank Trout
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.