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OutServe Magazine | November 18, 2014

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The OutHeroes Project: Capt Rich Richenberg

In Honor of Captain Rich Richenberg, US Air Force

by Michelle Benecke, Esq.

Rich Richenberg served in Desert Storm One, where he commanded the control center aboard the AWACs aircraft and garnered numerous accolades as an Air Force officer. He was top notch; it was widely accepted that he was destined for the highest ranks. That all unraveled when he acknowledged he was gay.

Rich believed deeply in the military’s stated values of integrity, honor and courage and that is what led him to be honest with his command in 1994.  As a result, he faced derision from his superiors for being gay and, ultimately, he was discharged. To add insult to injury, the Air Force gratuitously downgraded the characterization of his discharge — to “General (under honorable conditions)” instead of “Honorable” — notwithstanding his impeccable service record.

His coworkers could not believe the Air Force would kick out an officer of his caliber. The vicious means by which senior Air Force officers sought to harm Rich as he was being discharged moved many to oppose Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Rich was one of the first military members to challenge his discharge under DADT in federal court, however the courts were not ready to overturn the law.  Within the military, he worked with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) to have his discharge upgraded.  Ultimately, Rich was given the Honorable discharge characterization he had earned, but not before taking his case all the way up the chain to the Secretary of the Air Force.

After his discharge, Rich was a lifeline for other military members who were harmed by DADT, first as an individual and, later, as an employee with SLDN.  He subsequently moved to San Diego, where he worked in real estate and IT, but moved to the Midwest last year to take a position with FEMA, where he assisted disaster victims during this season’s record-level floods.

Rich’s case was a turning point.  For decades, military officials forced gay military members to accept downgraded discharge characterizations on the theory that being gay, alone, was an affront to military standards of conduct.  In other cases, military investigators forced gay people to accept less than honorable discharge characterizations and leave quietly by threatening them with prosecution and prison.

Rich Richenberg brought this practice into the national spotlight.  As we transition to a post-DADT world, the practice of downgrading gay military members’ discharge characterizations is now well-documented.  This should assist veterans who seek to have their characterizations upgraded in the future.