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Members of the Armed Forces Sue Pentagon over HIV Discrimination


Do service members living with HIV deserve to be treated equally?

A two-time war veteran was kicked out of the military, not long after being identified as HIV-positive. So the service member and others responded as any HIV warrior would — with a sweeping lawsuit.

Under the Trump administration, the United States’ Department of Defense new policy bars any service member living with HIV from being enlisted or commissioned, once their status has been identified. It also imposes geographic limitations on the service of those who are identified as HIV-positive while on active duty.

“After serving in Afghanistan and Kuwait, I knew I wanted to become an officer in the U.S. Army and a leader for all of the great men and women in our armed forces,” Sgt. Nick Harrison said in a statement on May 30. “I spent years acquiring the training and skills to serve my country as a lawyer. This should be a no-brainer.”

As a sergeant in the D.C. Army National Guard who trained as an airborne paratrooper and served three years on active duty, Harrison was deployed to both Afghanistan and Kuwait. Harrison was accepted to the Air Force Academy in 2012. But shortly after, he was diagnosed with HIV, not long after returning from his second deployment.

In 2013, he was awarded an open position in the D.C. National Guard’s JAG Corps, but was denied a medical waiver and three appeals.After he graduated, he was kicked out of the military — for being infected with HIV.

“It’s frustrating to be turned away by the country I have served since I was 23 years old, especially because my HIV has no effect on my service,” he said. “It was an honor to be chosen to join the JAG Corps for the D.C. National Guard, and I look forward to my first day on the job.”

Lambda Legal and Outserve-SLDN filed a lawsuit on Harrison’s behalf on May 30 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. In addition, both organizations filed a companion lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The cases Harrison v. Mattis and Voe v. Mattis were filed with help from Winston & Strawn LLP, serving  pro bono.

The Pentagon’s draconian “Deploy or Get Out” policy was unveiled on Feb. 14, 2018, directing the organization to identify service members who cannot be deployed to military posts outside of the United States for more than 12 consecutive months, and to “separate” them from participating in service. Current U.S. military policy identifies service members living with HIV as non-deployable, so therefore they could be immediately discharged under this new policy.

The military’s new policy is outrageous, advocates say. “These oppressive restrictions are based on antiquated science that reinforces stigma and denies perfectly qualified service members the full ability to serve their country,” Scott Schoettes, counsel and HIV project director at Lambda Legal, said in a statement. “The Pentagon needs to catch up with the 21st Century. Recruitment, retention, deployment and commissioning should be based on a candidate’s qualifications to serve, not unfounded fears about HIV.”

Carlos del Rio, MD, professor of global health and medicine at Emory University and Co-Director of the Emory Center for AIDS Research, explained in the press release that HIV is an extremely different beast than it was 25 years ago. While still a serious condition and disease, an HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. Since HIV’s severity has changed over the years, HIV policies need to change also.

People living with HIV from all walks of life deal with stigmas that have formed over the last two decades. It’s time for service members in the military living with HIV to step up for themselves and fight back.



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Benjamin M. Adams