THE MILITARY'S WAR ON HIV-POSITIVE SOLIDERS
Bloomberg Businessweek|September 28, 2020
Don’t ask, don’t tell is dead. But America’s armed services still bar Poz recruits from enlisting and can kick out those who contract the disease while serving
Erik Larson

Kevin Deese joined the U.S. Naval Academy in 2010 with dreams of becoming a distinguished military officer and giving back to the country he loves—just like his Navy pilot brother did. “I wanted to follow in his footsteps and serve our country,” he says. “He was my role model, and I was inspired by his choice to be of service to others. I wanted that for my life, too.”

Deese thrived at the storied academy, excelling in math, physics, and calculus while receiving medals for rifle and pistol marksmanship. As graduation neared he was selected for an elite training program for officers on nuclear-powered submarines, a track that would require additional training after graduation at the Navy’s Nuclear Power School in Goose Creek, S.C. The plan, he says, was to learn how to command specialized crews and operate some of the most technologically advanced equipment in the world.

“I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” Deese says. “I had the grades, brains, and the mathematical abilities to do it.” He even took steps to try to get certified as a Navy diver once he left the academy, one more way to stand out on a sub. Everything was going as planned.

But on April 1, 2014, about six weeks before graduation, a top academy official called Deese into his office to inform him that after getting his diploma he would be discharged instead of offered a commission as an officer. The reason? He tested HIV-positive. The result came from a voluntary blood test he took in his bid to join the diving program, he was told. Deese says the diagnosis left him too stunned to challenge the decision, which he was told was “black and white” and couldn’t be appealed.

Deese still attended graduation, complete with a flyover by the Navy’s Blue Angels and a military parade. But when his 1,100 fellow graduates stood to take the officer’s oath, he couldn’t take part. “I had to stay seated,” he says. “I was just so embarrassed and ashamed that I wasn’t going to be serving like all my classmates.”

Deese’s dream of protecting the nation had collided head-on with a longstanding military policy that many Americans may find surprising in 2020: People with HIV are banned from enlisting in the armed services, and those who contract the disease after they enlist are prohibited from commissioning as officers or serving in combat zones. As a Naval cadet, Deese wasn’t technically enlisted; and with a commission off the table, he had nowhere to go. The Navy kicked him out with an honorable discharge. Deese says he was left adrift: “I had never even considered what I would do if I wasn’t in the Navy.”

Although the U.S. armed forces have tried to become more equitable over the years, improving opportunities for women and scrapping an outdated ban on service by openly gay Americans— the Cadet Chapel at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., has even hosted same-sex weddings—the story of inclusion isn’t the same for people with HIV. Those who want to join the military after testing positive have no route to do so, and the careers of active duty personnel who contract the disease are constrained or cut short.

Deese, now 28 and working in corporate procurement at a bank in Buffalo, is trying to change that. He filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense in 2018 that’s one of three related potentially landmark cases aiming to force the military to let HIV-positive service members deploy and be commissioned. Depending on how the cases play out, the litigation could even force the military to let HIVpositive men and women enlist. After all, refusing employment based on HIV status in the private sector has been illegal since at least 1990, when the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed by Congress.

Deese is joined in the lawsuit by a U.S. Air Force Academy graduate whose hard-fought commission after graduation was rescinded because of his previously known HIV status, even though his superiors assured him that his diagnosis a few years earlier wouldn’t get in the way. The airman, who enlisted and served three years before joining the academy in 2012 to become an officer, is participating in the case anonymously as John Doe. Both men contend that advancements in HIV treatment that became commonplace years ago make restrictions based on HIV status unfair and outdated.

“There’s no longer a rational basis for these policies, and when you treat people differently based on a trait or characteristic that is essentially irrelevant, that is the definition of discrimination,” says Scott Schoettes, their lawyer from the LGBTQ legal advocacy group Lambda Legal. “HIV treatment has advanced to a place where it’s not really relevant to whether someone can deploy— as irrelevant as skin color or gender.”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEKView All

Washington vs.Carbon

The feds are starting to allocate billions of dollars to pull CO2 from the air. They’ve got a lot of work to do

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 17, 2022

Biden's Year 2 Test

As the pandemic wears on and prices rise, many Americans are disillusioned with the president. Can he win them back?

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 24, 2022

A Fight Over Discrimination in the Age of Algorithms

Redfin has staked its reputation on making a racist industry more equitable. Critics say it’s been denying services to Black homebuyers and sellers

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 24, 2022

The lost girls of covid

For 25 years, girls in developing countries have been on a remarkable trajectory of progress. The pandemic is reversing it

10+ mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 10, 2022

Keeping Covid Out of The Cabin

As the pandemic enters Year 3, airlines are stepping up their hygiene routines

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 24, 2022

Ola's Scooter Factory Isn't Making Many Scooters

Trouble at such a high-profile project is a bad sign for India’s electric vehicle industry

3 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
December 27, 2021 - January 03, 2022 (Double Spread)

The New Web Vs. the Old Web

Meet Web3, which could replace the Big Tech powers, or be co-opted by them

5 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 17, 2022

The Fed's Mind Control

The idea that monetary policy shapes inflation expectations is about to get road-tested

5 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 24, 2022

Sheltered Paradise

With spectacular beaches, top-tier resorts, and a stellar Covid record, Anguilla is growing even more irresistible.

6 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 24, 2022

Same City - Different Games

What’s changed since Beijing last held the Olympics? Almost everything

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
January 24, 2022
RELATED STORIES

CHRISTOPHER FISHER

In October 2021, Christopher Fisher, a 26-year-old, Texas-born endurance athlete living in Breckenridge, Colorado, climbed a whopping 400,332 vertical feet in one month. That’s the equivalent of summiting a 13,000-foot peak from sea level every day for 31 straight days. It’s likely a world record, too (he’s submitting it to Guinness), and maybe just a bit, well, crazy. Here’s what Fisher had to say about the feat.

2 mins read
Backpacker
January 2022

How I Became One of 37,000 Homeless Veterans

Service in the Navy was supposed to guarantee a good civilian job later and access to needed medical care. It didn’t

7 mins read
Newsweek
November 26, 2021

LESS ACTION, MORE SPEED!

SAVAGE’S NEW STRAIGHT-PULL BOLT ACTION ALLOWS FOR FASTER FOLLOW-UP SHOTS.

9 mins read
American Outdoor Guide
October 2021

Not Your Average Space Cadet

NASA astronaut and former Navy SEAL CHRIS CASSIDY never shies from a challenge. Here’s how he stays tenacious.

2 mins read
Men's Journal
March - April 2021

UN CALLS FOR GLOBAL DATABASE OF HUMAN GENE EDITING RESEARCH

The World Health Organization issued new recommendations on human genome editing, calling for a global registry to track “any form of genetic manipulation” and proposing a whistleblowing mechanism to raise concerns about unethical or unsafe research.

2 mins read
AppleMagazine
AppleMagazine #507

No Matchy-Matchy Allowed

Pattern play adds interest and fun to a bedroom.

1 min read
Cottages and Bungalows
February-March 2021

Butterfly Collection

Colorful butterflies gracefully fly across this throw-size quilt. Did you know they can fly at speeds of up to 30 mph?

4 mins read
Quilter's World
Spring 2021

BUILDING A COMPETITION WORTHY SCALE COCKPIT

Scale competition is a segment in this hobby that I really enjoy.

6 mins read
Model Airplane News
January 2021

HELLCAT VERSUS CORSAIR

GRUMMAN TEST PILOT FLIES THE COMPETITION

10+ mins read
Flight Journal
Annual 2020

Living a Better Life with HIV

AIDS is a disease caused by human immunodeficiency virus, which targets and weakens the body's immune system.

2 mins read
Women Fitness
November 2020