U.S. Navy Ends Policy Preventing HIV-Positive Servicemembers From Serving Overseas

Our guest blogger is Katie Miller, Special Assistant for LGBT Progress.

The Department of the Navy has updated its policy to allow HIV-positive Sailors and Marines to be assigned overseas and on select large ship platforms. According to the LGBT military organization OutServe-SLDN, this policy shift represents “the biggest change in military HIV policy since the late 1980s when mass testing for HIV went into effect.”

Before this year, HIV-positive members of the military were prohibited from stepping foot on foreign soil, even in times of peace and in non-combat zones — if they were allowed to continue serving at all. The previous policy allowed personnel with HIV to remain in the service if they were found to be in otherwise good health, but required they remain within the country to visit a military health care facility that hosts an infectious disease doctor every six months.  With the new policy, Sailors and Marines will still visit a stateside medical facility every six months, but their career opportunities are no longer limited by an unnecessary travel ban.

The update, which took effect last August, was quietly implemented and has only just become known to the public. But what’s more surprising is the Navy’s rationale for the change. According to the memorandum, the new policies intend to “reflect current knowledge” of HIV and lift needless restrictions which have “made this subset of personnel less competitive in achieving career milestones or warriors qualifications.” In other words, previous policies failed to recognize that many HIV-positive personnel are able to continue serving in the same or similar capacity as they were before. And the travel ban, which appeared to be in the best interest of servicemembers’ health, actually just served as a barrier to their promotion and likely a disincentive for reenlistment.

This move demonstrates the Navy’s commitment to judging Sailors or Marines only according to their capabilities. But while the Navy has made significant progress in throwing out an antiquated policy, the other branches of the military have yet to evaluate the possibly discriminatory effects of their own overseas bans. The Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard risk should take every step to ensure the meritocratic spirit so characteristic of our Armed Forces is preserved, and that begins with a look at the policies which unduly hinder a service member’s career.