Former staff sergeant leads suit against military denial of separation pay for 140 gays

Reply Thu 22 Sep, 2011 08:56 am
Former staff sergeant leads suit against military denial of separation pay for 140 gays
By Olivier Uyttebrouck / Journal Staff Writer
September 22, 2011

One kiss changed Richard Collins’ life forever and made him the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government, his former employer.

Collins was a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force in 2006 and stationed at Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis when a pair of civilian co-workers saw him exchange a kiss with his male partner.

Within five months, Collins’ nine-year military career ended with an honorable discharge that cited a “homosexual action” as the reason for his involuntary separation from the service.

But the Air Force handed Collins one more surprise minutes before he left Cannon for the last time.

“I was about ready to leave the gates,” Collins recalled of his final departure from Cannon Air Force Base in March 2007.

Collins was told that because he had been discharged for homosexual conduct, the military had cut his separation pay in half. The pay is based on a departing service member’s rank and length of service. Instead of receiving the $25,702 he expected, Collins was paid $12,851.

“I was just blown away,” Collins said Wednesday in a phone interview from his home in Clovis. “I was getting discharged for being gay, and now they’re taking away half my pay.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the federal government on behalf of Collins and 146 other former service members, demanding they be paid their full separation pay. If the lawsuit is successful, Collins will receive an additional $12,351, he said.

The case will receive its first hearing today in the U.S. Federal Court of Claims in Washington, D.C., which considers monetary claims against the U.S. government.

A judge will consider a motion from the government’s attorneys asking that the case be dismissed, said Laura Schauer Ives, an attorney for ACLU of New Mexico who is representing Collins and other former service members. No trial date has been scheduled.

William Carr, then-deputy undersecretary for military personnel policy, wrote a letter dated Dec. 22, 2009, telling the ACLU the Department of Defense was justified in paying Collins only half of his separation pay. Carr’s response drew a distinction between a person’s sexual orientation and “homosexual conduct.”

“A person’s sexual orientation is considered a personal and private matter and is not a bar to service entry or continued service,” Carr wrote. But under military policy, “a person who engages in homosexual conduct must be separated and is not fully qualified for retention.”

Military personnel discharged for homosexual conduct “do not receive the same level of separation pay as those who are fully qualified for retention,” he wrote.

Collins’ attorneys contend cutting in half someone’s pay solely on the basis of “homosexual conduct” is unconstitutional because it violates a services member’s rights to equal protection and due process.

The 147 former service members who brought the lawsuit are seeking a total of $1.2 million in unpaid separation pay, Schauer Ives said.

Collins enlisted in the Air Force in 1997 during the era of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a contentious Clinton-era law that required gay service members to keep their sexuality a secret or face discharge from the military.

President Barack Obama last year signed legislation repealing the 1993 law, which officially ended on Tuesday.

“My dad was in the military, so from junior high on I pretty much looked forward to getting out of school and joining the military,” the Starkville, Miss., native said.

Military attitudes toward homosexuality complicated Collins’ decision to enlist, but his desire to serve won out, he said.

“It was fun,” Collins, 35, said of his nine-year Air Force career. “It’s pretty much like any other job, except you’re working for your country and for your freedoms.”

Collins served in Italy, Kosovo and Phoenix before transferring to Cannon Air Force Base in 2004, where he was an educational trainer, ensuring airmen were qualified to do their jobs prior to deployment, he said.

In 2006, Collins met and began dating his current partner, who is a Clovis native. Today, the two live together and operate a dog grooming business in Clovis, he said.

In November 2006, Collins and his partner were driving together about 10 miles from the base. The two kissed as they waited at a stop sign, he said.

The kiss was observed by two civilian supervisors at Cannon who informed Collins’ commanding officer, setting in motion an investigation. Collins said he opted to accept an honorable discharge in March 2007 rather than standing for court-martial.

In 2008, Collins approached lawyers with the ACLU of New Mexico, who agreed to pursue a lawsuit against the federal government.

The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” means Collins today could not have been discharged from the military for being gay, Schauer Ives said.

“It could not happen today, thankfully,” she said. But despite the repeal, Collins and others are still owed compensation for the way they were treated, she said.

“Their injury still exists,” she said. “It is not righted by the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

Read more: ABQJournal Online » Clovis Man Leads Suit Against Military http://www.abqjournal.com/main/2011/09/22/news/clovis-man-leads-suit-against-military.html#ixzz1Yh1fd9ud
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