Suit filed to restore pay to sergeant discharged under 'don't ask'

By Sue Major Holmes
Thursday, November 11, 2010; 8:25 PM

The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the government on behalf of a gay former Air Force sergeant who was denied full separation pay after he was forced out under the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Former Air Force staff sergeant Richard Collins of Clovis, N.M. says he only wants what is given to other military veterans who leave involuntarily.

The Air Force paid Collins $12,351 instead of the expected $25,702 when he was honorably discharged in March 2006 after nine years for homosexual conduct.

Separation pay is granted to military personnel who served at least six years but were involuntarily discharged, part of an effort ease their transition into civilian life.

But the Department of Defense has a list of conditions that trigger an automatic reduction in that pay, including homosexuality or homosexual conduct. That policy went into effect in 1991, two years before "don't ask, don't tell."

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, does not challenge that controversial ban on openly gay troops. Rather, the ACLU argues that the Pentagon cannot unilaterally cut the amount for people discharged for homosexuality.

The lawsuit seeks full pay for Collins and others affected by the policy. Laura Ives, a staff attorney for the ACLU of New Mexico, estimated that 100 to 150 people might qualify if the lawsuit is granted class-action status.

The ACLU contends that the 1991 policy could easily be revoked because Congress did not enact it, Ives said.

A Department of Defense spokeswoman who would not give her name said Thursday that the department cannot comment on pending litigation. An Air Force duty officer said Thursday that no one was available on Veterans Day to discuss the separation pay policy.

Two civilians who worked with Collins at Cannon Air Force Base turned him in after they saw him kiss his boyfriend in a car about 10 miles from the base. He was off-duty and not in uniform at the time, according to the lawsuit.

Collins, who now lives with his boyfriend in Clovis, said he would have challenged his separation from the military but couldn't find a civilian lawyer who would take the case, and he didn't want military counsel.

The suit comes amid a flurry of activity surrounding "don't ask." The Supreme Court is considering whether to hear an appeal of a federal judge's order that the ban can no longer be enforced. Meanwhile, senior Pentagon officials are reviewing a long-awaited survey of active-duty and reserve troops on the issue. Most respondents to the survey said they would be supportive or indifferent to repealing the policy.

The House has passed a repeal proposal as part of a broader defense policy bill. President Obama has pledged to push the Senate to join in passing a repeal before a new Congress is sworn in.

- Associated Press

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