Martin O'Malley may not have a "Veterans for O'Malley" support group on Twitter like the one backing his presidential race rival Bernie Sanders, but the former Maryland governor is working to corner more of the veteran voting market, releasing one of the most comprehensive plans for former service members from any candidate ahead of Veterans Day Wednesday.
The plan, released by O'Malley's campaign Monday, puts veterans health, justice, employment, and homelessness center stage, with several policies aimed at female and LBGTQ service members, including expunging records for veterans who were discharged for being gay.
"Governor O'Malley will provide long-overdue justice for LGBT veterans whose only transgression was being true to who they are," his policy proposal states. "He will commit his administration to passing legislation automatically upgrading the service records of troops discharged solely because of their sexual orientation."
Since World War II, the US government has discharged an estimated 100,000 members of the armed forces for being gay, some honorably and some dishonorably. Even after the military's controversial "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy was repealed in 2011, these gay veterans have continued to feel the fallout of the military's anti-gay policies, with some treated as felons, barred from receiving benefits, shut out of employment opportunities, and even prevented from voting.
The Defense Department has said it will allow veterans to appeal these discharges, but versions of a bill to help speed up and put the onus of this process on the government instead of veterans have sat idly in the House and Senate since they were introduced in June 2013 and Jan 2014, respectively.
Despite bipartisan support for the Restore Honor to Service Members Act, some advocates don't believe the issues will be resolved any time soon.
"Given the fact that its primary season and its an election year, I don't think either chambers will be willing to move on the legislation," said Matt Thorn, interim executive director of OutServe-SLDN, an advocacy group for LGBT service members. "Yet the bill doesn't seek to "enact any new policies," he added. "The DoD is already processing discharge upgrades. The Act is just to codify that procedure. It's a more streamlined process."
Thorn said O'Malley's written proposal to simplify the discharge upgrade paperwork for gay veterans is "bold," and will especially help those veterans whose papers have been destroyed or gone missing prior to digitalization of records.
Earlier last month, at an address to members of gay rights organization Human Rights Campaign, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton expressed support for discharge upgrades for former gay men and women who served in the armed forces, but Thorn said that O'Malley's proposal is the furthest step a Democratic — or any — candidate, has formally taken on the issue so far — a policy win for O'Malley whose support continues to sit at around two percent in polls, and lags behind that of Clinton and Sanders.
Despite commending O'Malley for his proposals Monday, Thorn also challenged all candidates to also address the increasing number of transgender veterans "who should also be granted the opportunity to upgrade their discharges."
Meanwhile, Sanders, a former chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, has earned wide support from veterans not least for his efforts in negotiating reform legislation to stop veterans from getting sicker or dying while waiting for medical treatment at the height of the Veterans Association (VA) health care crisis that came to light in 2013.
O'Malley's plan Monday also proposes overhauls to the VA, amid an aging veteran population that is increasingly relying on the agency's services and as more Iraq and Afghanistan veterans return from the battlefield.
The policy also emphasized care for female veterans, including by adding more gynecologists to staff at the some one-third of VA clinics that currently don't have them, and prioritizing the passage of The Military Justice Improve Act, which would move reporting and prosecution of sexual assaults outside the sole-discretion of the military's chain of command and refer the cases instead to independent military prosecutors.
O'Malley's proposals could be the first big push by Democrats to woo veteran voters away from the GOP; 59 percent of veterans voted for Republicans in the 2012 presidential elections compared to 39 percent who voted for their Democratic counterparts.