A federal judge in Virginia ruled Friday that the U.S. military must suspend its practice of discharging service members because they have HIV.
The injunction followed a lawsuit filed by two airmen who learned in November that they would not be permitted to continuing serving in the military because of their HIV status. This is despite the fact that both were in treatment and had undetectable viral loads, making it virtually impossible for them to transmit the virus to others.
The discharges were part of a policy the Pentagon implemented last year colloquially known as “deploy or get out” (DOGO). It was an attempt to trim military personnel based on who was fit to serve across the globe at any given time. In the case of the two plaintiffs, they were deemed unfit to deploy despite supporting recommendations from medical personnel.
Judge Leonie Brinkema, a Clinton appointee, agreed the new policy discriminated against people with HIV. “Plaintiffs have made a strong and clear showing that defendants’ policies are irrational, outdated, and unnecessary and their decisions arbitrary, unreasoned, and inconsistent,” she wrote.
The military, she explained, is operating “based on a flawed understanding of HIV” that is causing HIV-positive service members to be “irrationally and arbitrarily swept from the ranks.”
“Because of advances in medicine and science, HIV is no longer a progressive, terminal illness,” Brinkema wrote. Considering the medical expertise the plaintiffs brought forward, she noted that even if there is a sustained disruption to an HIV-positive service member receiving their medication, “an individual’s risk of transmitting HIV during military service remains vanishingly low.”
The military, by contrast, could not present any recorded cases of accidental HIV transmission on the battlefield.
Plenty of other medical conditions, including some that require regular medication, still allow for service members to be deployed. “There appears to be no reason why asymptomatic HIV is singled out for treatment so different from that given to other chronic conditions, all of which are subject to worsening upon disruption of daily medication,” the decision read.
Moreover, the military did not present a single expert of its own to justify the double standard. Brinkema chastised the military for citing a report that “contains no scientific data, evidence, or real-life accounts, but rather is a mere recitation of defendants’ policies.”
In addition to the two plaintiffs, the LGBTQ military organization OutServe-SLDN also joined the lawsuit on behalf of several other service members who feared they might also be discharged based on their HIV status, and Brinkema agreed that the DOGO policy could potentially impact others.
The judge’s order enjoins the military from separating or discharging not only the plaintiffs, but any similarly situated active-duty member of the Air Force because of their HIV status.