Two members of the US Air Force are suing the Trump administration after they were booted from the military because of their HIV status, which they say is a violation of the US Constitution and federal law.
The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of the airmen by Lambda Legal and Outserve-SLDN — an association of LGBTQ military members — asks that the case be taken up by the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
Existing military rules restrict HIV-positive people from deploying outside of the US — unless they receive a waiver — and require those individuals to undergo a medical evaluation process to determine their future in the military. The lawsuit notes that the airmen, identified in the lawsuit under aliases to protect their identities, were deemed fit to continue serving by their doctors and commanding officers.
But things only went downhill from there thanks to the Trump administration’s new “Deploy or Get Out” policy, under which the Pentagon discharges armed service members who cannot be deployed for more than 12 months.
The airmen, who tested positive last year, are otherwise healthy — their viral loads are undetectable, they are taking necessary medication, and they are not suffering from health consequences related to HIV — but the military already deems HIV-positive service members, absent a waiver, as non-deployable, setting the two up to be automatically discharged under Trump’s new policy.
The lawsuit, Roe and Voe v. Mattis, et al, further mentions that the Department of Defense in July determined that service members with HIV can still be deployed “with limitations,” but the two men in the lawsuit were determined to be “severely limited” — not by the doctors who evaluated them or their commanding officers but by the superior officers who made the decision about their discharge. Roe and Voe are pseudonyms used to protect the health privacy of the two men.
According to the Washington Post, the airmen were told their discharge was based on the military’s ban on deployment of HIV-positive personnel to the Middle East, where most Air Force foreign assignments are currently made. Neither the Air Force nor Central Command provided the Post with any explanation as to why HIV-positive service members cannot be deployed to the Middle East.
According to the Lambda lawsuit, between 2011 and 2016, the Air Force diagnosed 181 airmen with HIV, 119 of whom were still serving at the end of that period. In the Navy, 388 sailors were diagnosed with HIV in the same period, with 266 still serving. Yet despite the advances in HIV treatment which renders positive status a manageable chronic condition, perhaps as few as 17 airmen who given overseas deployment last year, according to Lambda.
The lawsuit suggests that eligibility for overseas deployment is being made more difficult, despite the continued improvements in HIV outcomes. This is the third such suit Lambda has filed in recent months, and the title of its press release on the Roe and Voe case is titled “Trump Quietly Starts Firing Servicemembers Living with HIV Just Before the Holidays.”
The new “Deploy or Get Out” policy was spearheaded by outgoing Defense Secretary James Mattis, who is listed in the lawsuit as a named defendant alongside Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson and the Department of Defense itself.
Scott Schoettes, the counsel and HIV project director at Lambda Legal, said in a written statement that the Trump administration is “disgusting” for “sending some men and women in uniform home for the holidays without jobs simply because of their HIV status.”
Peter Perkowski, who serves as legal and policy director of OutServe-SLDN, echoed Schoettes’ sentiments.
“These airmen are acknowledged leaders and good at their jobs,” he stated. “They have served honorably for many years … There is simply no justification for this decision.”