"They were given less than honorable discharges," Hillary Clinton said. "I can't think of a better way to thank those men and women for their service than by upgrading their service records."
Addressing the influential gay rights organization Human Rights Campaign, Clinton thanked gay rights activists for their strong support over her political career and was frank about her own change of heart about gay marriage.
"You helped changed a lot of minds, including mine," Clinton said to applause. "I personally am very grateful for that."
Politically active gay and lesbian people are an important constituency for Democrats, in no small measure because of strong financial support for Democratic candidates. Clinton has held several lucrative fundraising parties at the homes of gay supporters this year.
She pledged Saturday to build on the Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing marriage equality, and got in a few digs at Republicans for opposing the expansion of gay rights and legal protections.
"I see the injustices and the dangers you and your families still face, and I am running for president to end them once and for all," she said to cheers and chants of "Hill-a-ry, Hill-a-ry."
She spoke to a crowded ballroom on Saturday morning, hours before Vice President Biden, a potential challenger to Clinton for the 2016 Democratic nomination, gives the top-billed address to the group's annual political rallying meeting. Clinton did not mention Biden, whose support among gay rights activists is as strong or stronger than her own.
She promised not to forget the gay rights cause if elected, or treat LGBT support as a "political bargaining chip."
"Those of you who know me, know that's not me," Clinton said.
She endorsed proposed legislation to guarantee protection on the job and in housing and other areas for gay, lesbian and transgender people, and pointed to what she said are gaps in legal protection despite the universal right to marry.
"I wish that all the progress that we have made was so deeply ingrained in our laws and our values that you didn't have to keep constantly defending them, but we're not there yet," Clinton said. "There are still public officials doing everything in their power to interfere with your rights," she said.
Clinton did not identify Kim Davis by name, but she denounced the Rowan County, Ky., court clerk and Davis's backers for flouting the law by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
Progress is not secure, Clinton said, "especially when you turn on the TV and you see a Republican candidate for president literally standing in the courthouse door in Kentucky, calling on people to join him in resisting the Supreme Court ruling," Clinton said. "Celebrating a county clerk who is breaking the law by denying other Americans their constitutional rights."
That was apparently a reference to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who stood with Davis when she was released from jail last month. Clinton also criticized Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, another GOP candidate, who calls the Supreme Court ruling issued in June "tyranny."
A military record upgrade process is already available on a case-by-case basis to individual gay veterans who submit requests. Clinton was not specific about what she would do differently, but she appeared to be endorsing a more comprehensive or automatic upgrade for those expelled under Don't Ask Don't Tell, the 1993 law her husband, former president Bill Clinton signed, as well as new government action to clear the records of veterans kicked out before 1993.
Legislation proposed by Democrats in Congress would make that process simpler.
Outserve-SLDN, an activist group that pushed for the 2011 repeal of Don't Ask Don't tell, now helps discharged gay veterans apply for records upgrades. The group says 13,650 people were involuntarily discharged for homosexual conduct or identification under Don't Ask Don't Tell, and that nearly 6,000 have received upgrades to an honorable discharge.
The group estimates that 100,000 veterans were forced out for being gay prior to the 1993 law. The group is now working to secure honorable discharges for veterans from as far back as World War II, said interim executive director Matt Thorn.
"The onus is on the service member to provide documentation they were kicked out because they are gay or lesbian," Thorn said. "It would be great if that got switched a little bit, and the process was made easier."