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HIV and the Military


The military has been in the headlines recently with stories about war, transgender bans, and questions around the Commander-in-Chief’s fitness for his job. However, a topic of little discussion with big impact has existed in the military for many years and is now just beginning to make some headlines as policies continue to change around people living with HIV. For those in the military who are HIV-positive, it hasn’t been the easiest part of their daily routine, with heightened scrutiny around medication, treatment services, and restrictions on duties one can perform.

To begin, the military still has a ban in effect for people who test positive prior to joining. In a piece entitled HIV/AIDS in the Military: What you need to know, it states Army Regulation (AR) 600-110, drafted in 2014, is titled “Identification, Surveillance, and Administration of Personnel Infected with HIV.” Chapter 5, Section 3 lists the U.S. Military’s official HIV testing guidelines.

For instance, section 5-3-a states: “Applicants for accession who have no military status of any kind at the time of testing and who are confirmed HIV infected will not be enlisted or appointed in any component of the Army.” Even though medicine and technology have advanced over the past 30 years, the military has been slow to come around in terms of the Draconian practices they continue to use against those who are HIV positive.

The rules aren’t much different for those who contract the virus while enlisted. The article states “Soldiers who contract HIV while they’re on a military deployment, there are special protocols to be followed if that is indeed the case. For example, Chapter 6, Section 3 of AR 600-110 offers assignment limitations for soldiers on active duty who contract HIV after enlistment: HIV infected Soldiers will not be deployed or assigned overseas. HIV infected Soldiers will not perform official duties overseas for any duration of time. Soldiers confirmed to be HIV infected while stations overseas will be reassigned to the United.”

In an article in Rolling Stone entitled “What it’s like to be positive in the Military” a scary picture has been painted about just how far outdated the practices of the military are when it comes to treatment, criminalization, and overall response to the epidemic within the ranks.

According to the story, former Army lieutenant Kenneth Pinkela was “was forced to move back into his parent's home three years ago after a military court martial had found him guilty of aggravated assault and battery back in 2012. But Pinkela never bruised up anyone. Instead, he was tried and charged for exposing a younger lieutenant to HIV, though there was no proof of transmission. Pinkela has been HIV-positive since 2007, when he was diagnosed right before deployment to Iraq during the surge.”

As a result of this, “He served eight months in prison, lost his home and was dishonorably discharged from the Army.”

Unfortunately, the article details that his situation is not unique and that several other service members have had similar experiences around HIV services within the armed forces. They stated “serving their country while fighting for access to HIV care or preventative treatments is an uphill battle rife with bureaucracy, old science and misnomers within the Department of Defense on how HIV is transmitted. Much of the problem has to do with education, but both LGBTQ and HIV advocates say the issue is framed within the military's staunch conservatism around sexual activity – particularly when it comes to gay sex.”

Contracting HIV while in the military also reduces the capacity one can serve and options for growth within the service. Army veteran Aaron Laxton of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, calls the UCMJ “a very draconian system.”

While HIV has become a manageable chronic illness, it’s still a “career death sentence” in the military, said Laxton in an interview with POZ.com.

An article entitled Research Brief: HIV Diagnoses Among Male U.S. Army Soldiers adds more context to this notion stating “Although many people in the U.S. Army who test positive for HIV may still be eligible and able to continue serving, HIV stigma may make people with HIV more willing to discontinue their military careers,” according to an article by John Brundage, MD, MPH and colleagues. In a surveillance study of people in the military diagnosed with HIV between 1990 and 2013, Brundage found that a quarter of people left service within the first 16 months after being diagnosed. This coincides with the removal of those who are HIV-positive from combat duty and placing them stateside in positions they may not be willing to transition into.

As the Transgender military ban continues to make headlines and new case law, we must continue to do work that ensures no one is discriminated against from potential careers and employment due to HIV. People living with HIV are thriving and should be able to serve their country in the same capacity as every other qualified citizen.