Two soldiers are taking on the Department of Defense under the Trump administration, and challenging a new policy that could effectively purge service members who are living with HIV. The two companion lawsuits, Harrison v. Mattis and Doe v. Mattis, challenge the new policy. One plaintiff is Sgt. Nick Harrison, 41, who could lose everything unless changes are made to allow himself and other soldiers living with HIV to continue to serve their country.
Under a Feb. 14 memo, the Department of Defense released its new “Deploy or Get Out!” policy, effective Oct. 1, which directs the Pentagon to discharge service members who can’t be deployed outside of the U.S. for more than 12 consecutive months. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the memo was to promote “readiness” within the Armed Forces.
But the policy could spell trouble for service members living with HIV. That’s because an existing policy — conceived during the thick of the AIDS crisis — bars service members living with HIV from being deployed overseas. So it would make it impossible, Harrison says, for service members living with HIV to remain in service.
Lambda Legal and OutServe-SLDN, and co-counsel at Winston & Strawn LLP, filed the lawsuit on May 30. OutServe-SLDN is a network of LGBT service members. The counsel at Winston & Strawn LLP took the case pro bono.
Sgt. Harrison hopes to make a difference for other members of the Armed Forces. He isn’t being secretive about his identity, either. Harrison was deployed to both Afghanistan and Kuwait, but was diagnosed with HIV shortly after returning home from Kuwait in 2012. “This case is not just about me,” Harrison said. “This is about every person living with HIV knowing that they can perform any job in the world, including serving in the military. Together, we must stop the Pentagon from closing its doors to successful and talented service members. I look forward to the day that I can serve my country to the full extent of my abilities, based on my performance and unfettered by unfounded fears and misperceptions about HIV.”
Harrison also claims that the military’s policy wrongfully blocked him from ascending to Judge Advocate General officer of the D.C. National Guard, reports Bloomberg, because members living with HIV also cannot achieve officer status.
The motion for preliminary injunction was filed by Harrison and his legal team on July 19. It mentions that “people living with HIV lack relative political power,” suggesting that people with HIV generally have few allies, especially in the military.
Lambda Legal’s counsel doesn’t want to see people living with HIV being excluded from serving their country. “Soldiers, sailors, fighter pilots and marines are seeing their promising careers cut short, their dreams of service shattered and their health jeopardized due to antiquated notions about HIV and the stigma that results,” Scott Schoettes, Counsel and HIV Project Director at Lambda Legal, said in a statement. “This must end. If the court doesn’t intervene, the Trump administration will continue to discharge more promising service members living with HIV, denying them the ability to continue serving their country. Every day, people living with HIV are suffering professional setbacks and losing out on career advancement opportunities, and we are asking this court to put an end to these harmful actions.”
Anyone living with HIV is automatically disqualified from enlisting in the Armed Forces. However members that are already serving who then later seroconvert can remain in the military, but cannot be deployed overseas or in combat.
Some 1,200 service members’ future is now on the line, according to the complaint. It’s unclear how the new policy will be enforced and if Harrison will be able to topple it.