Going against Air Force policy, two U.S. airmen are being discharged after testing positive for HIV.
On Wednesday, two LGBTQ advocacy groups filed a lawsuit (Roe and Voe v. Mattis) against the U.S. Department of Defense on behalf of two Air Force service members being discharged due to their HIV status.
The two Air Force veterans, who have served since 2011 and 2012 respectively, are using pseudonyms in the lawsuit to protect their medical privacy. “Richard Roe” and “Victor Voe” both say they have served for years without incident, and both began treatment for HIV immediately after being diagnosed in 2017. Both report being asymptomatic and having undetectable viral loads, and in both cases doctors and commanding officers recommended Roe and Voe return to duty.
Against the recommendations and even against the Air Force’s own policy on airmen with HIV, both Roe and Voe were told they are going to be discharged from the military in early 2019.
Andy Blevins, executive director of the LGBTQ military organization OutServe-SLDN, told INTO he looks forward to fighting on behalf of the airmen in court.
“Despite evidence that these patriots are qualified to continue their honorable service, the Trump-Pence Administration is determined to undermine their contributions to this nation,” Blevins told INTO. “Alongside our incredible partners in Lambda Legal and Winston & Strawn, we are working to ensure that does not happen. All qualified individuals deserve the right to honorably continue their service.”
It’s not the first lawsuit that Outserve-SLDN and Lambda Legal have filed challenging the Trump administration for discharging HIV-positive troops. In July, the groups filed a separate lawsuit on behalf of an HIV-positive Army sergeant with two decades of military service. In August, they sued again — this time on behalf of two recent military academy graduates who were not allowed to commission as officers in the Navy and Air Force.
According to Air Force’s 44-page Human Immunodeficiency Virus Program policy, airmen who test positive for HIV “must [then] undergo medical evaluation for the purpose of determining status for continued military service.” Those ordered to adhere to treatment are retested after six months, then undergo annual medical evaluations.
“HIV seropositivity alone is not grounds for medical separation or retirement for [active-duty Air Force] members,” says Air Force policy, which also says service members should stay in active duty as long as they “are able to perform the duties of their office, grade, rank and/or rating,” and that they “may not be separated solely on the basis of laboratory evidence of HIV infection.”
Despite the policy (with which the Air Force states compliance is “mandatory”), Pentagon rules restrict the overseas deployment of military service members living with HIV. Department of Defense statistics cited in the lawsuit make clear that the number of HIV-positive troops is in the thousands. Most continue to serve in some capacity, despite not being allowed to deploy overseas.
But in February, the Trump administration hit those soldiers with a quiet sneak attack. The administration’s ‘Deploy Or Get Out’ (DOGO) policy directed the Pentagon to identify soldiers who were not qualified for deployment within a period of 12 months, and to discharge them. That put all HIV-positive military service members under immediate threat of losing their careers.
DOGO has put roughly 126,000 troops at immediate risk of discharge, according to an October report in the Military Times. Of that number, around 66,000 are non-deployable due to illness or injury, while another 24,000 were permanently non-deployable, pending disability evaluations. HIV-positive troops were only among a small number; the vast majority of people Trump wants to kick out of the U.S. Armed Forces are disabled. Soldiers whose injuries are a direct result of combat are exempt from DOGO.
HIV advocate Mark S. King, who authors the blog My Fabulous Disease, told INTO that the military “has often been ahead of the curve when it comes to social issues such as racial justice and even transgender issues,” but is “lagging behind” when it comes to policies that reflect the current livability and treatment protocols around HIV.
“Service members living with HIV have been serving our country with distinction for many years now. Today we know people living with HIV can be productive, healthy, and strong members of the armed forces,” King told INTO. “I wholeheartedly support this [lawsuit] for the United States military to finally update their policies and fully accept and support service members living with HIV.”
The military has indeed been progressive in its inclusion policies in recent years. King cited the Defense Department’s 2016 decision, made after years of careful independent DoD-funded study, to allow transgender troops to serve.
But, it seems, with every step forward the Pentagon takes to open its doors and raise the number of qualified soldiers seeking to join its ranks, the Trump administration steps in with a new policy that requires military numbers to shrink.
“It’s disgusting that the Trump Administration is sending some men and women in uniform home for the holidays without jobs simply because of their HIV status,” said Scott Schoettes, Counsel and HIV Project Director at Lambda Legal, in a press release Wednesday. “These decisions should be based on science, not stigma. Lambda Legal is suing to stop these separations and will keep fighting until President Trump understands that there’s not a job in the world a person living with HIV cannot safely perform, including the job of soldier.”