Hal Faulkner is 79 years old and he’s already lived months longer than his doctors predicted.
“I don’t know what to say, it’s just incredible that I’m still here,” Faulkner says in a halting voice made gruff by age and cancer.
Faulkner joined the Marines in 1953, and served in the Philippines. In 1956, he got kicked out with an “undesirable discharge” for being gay. His military papers said “homosexual” on them, quite an obstacle in the 1950s.
Still, Faulkner moved on, and had a successful career in sales.
A few years ago, when he got diagnosed with terminal cancer, Faulkner contacted his family about a dying wish.
“I always knew he served in the Marines, but no one in the family knew of the [undesirable] discharge,” says his niece, Michelle Clark.
Faulkner had come out to his family in 2005, attending a wedding with his partner of more than 20 years. But now he told them that the repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell” had made it possible to get his military discharge upgraded after years of avoiding the subject.
“He’s been carrying this societal shame with him all these years,” Clark says. “We as a family had no idea the pain he had inside of him.”
But a correction of military records usually takes at least six months, as well as a lawyer. The activist group OutServe-SLDN helped Faulkner get a pro-bono lawyer from the New York firm Winston & Strawn.
When lawyer Anne Brooksher-Yen saw the case and the time frame, she was worried, even when the military agreed to expedite the case.
“I didn’t know whether expedited was going to mean six weeks or six months,” Anne Brooksher-Yen says. “So I did have a conversation with him that we might not be able to get this done before he died.”
The Marines acted on his dying request in just two weeks. Last Friday in Florida, a small group presented Faulkner with his honorable discharge.
“I didn’t think that maybe I would last through all the battles that we’ve had, but a Marine is always a Marine,” Faulkner said at the ceremony.
As he spoke, two young Marines in uniform presented him with his papers. Air Force Lt. Col. John Gillespie, who is on the board of OutServe-SLDN, read the new discharge paper out loud.
Friends and family stood by, mostly in tears, including Fred Sainz of the Human Rights Campaign which pushed for years to allow gays in the military. Sainz hopes more veterans will get their records upgraded.
“What happened today is that a dying man, his dignity was restored,” Sainz says. “He will die here knowing that he served his country honorably. You certainly can’t right the wrong of six decades, [but] you can make it right going forward. And that’s what happened today, and that’s what we hope will come to thousands of American similarly situated.”
Sainz reckons at least 114,000 troops got bad discharges for being gay in the years before “don’t ask, don’t tell.” But many of them don’t even know they’re eligible to correct their records and get benefits like VA health care or home loans.
For Faulkner, it was never about the benefits, says his lawyer Anne Brooksher-Yen.
“It was really overwhelming seeing Hal finally have this wrong righted,” she says. “He is such a wonderful loving man, and he served with honor in the military and it was so important to him.”
“I don’t have much longer to live,” Faulkner said, “I will always be a Marine. Thank you. Semper fi.”
The young marines answered him back with the Marines battle cry: “Oorah.”