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Judge bars US military from discharging HIV-positive troops, overturns ban on officers with HIV

A U.S. military policy that blocks HIV-positive service members from being commissioned as officers has "no rational basis," a federal judge said in declining to throw out claims brought by graduates of the Air Force and Navy academies. (Dreamstime/TNS)
April 08, 2022

A federal judge has prohibited the U.S. military from discharging troops who are HIV-positive in a pair of rulings issued on Wednesday. Service members who contract HIV but are asymptomatic must also be allowed to become officers, the court ruled.

Scott Schoettes, who represented plaintiffs in the cases and “lives openly with HIV,” said Virginia U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema ruled that the “Pentagon’s policies regarding service members with HIV are not only outdated, but unlawful,” Bloomberg reported.  

Schoettes said the decisions are some of “the strongest judicial rulings in over two decades for people living with HIV.”

Brinkema’s rulings are being kept under seal while those involved agree on a redacted version, the court said.

In one of the cases, National Guard sergeant Nick Harrison, 43, argued the Defense Department’s HIV policy went against the equal protection clause in the Constitution. Harrison served multiple tours in Afghanistan and Kuwait prior to testing positive for the virus.

“It’s profoundly emotional to know that all service members with HIV will now be able to serve and defend our country without discrimination,” Harrison said in a statement. “I’m incredibly pleased with the court’s decision, and it’s very reassuring to hear the court recognize that these policies are irrational and based on outdated stereotypes and stigma.”

The second case involved two United States Air Force airmen who were released from the military due to their HIV-positive status. The two men took part in the lawsuit under pseudonyms: Richard Roe and Victor Voe. Both said they were told that those with HIV cannot deploy, and because deployment is a necessary aspect of their jobs, they had to be discharged.   

The plaintiffs in both cases argued that the Pentagon’s rule was outdated because medical advances and treatment have made HIV a manageable disease.

“These medical advances should have resulted in an overhaul of military policies related to people living with HIV,” Harrison argued, according to

“Instead, the Department of Defense and the Army maintained the bar to enlistment and appointment of people living with HIV, as well as the restrictions on deployment, when they revisited these policies in recent years,” the document continued.  

Around 2,000 HIV-positive individuals are currently serving in the United States military, court records from the case showed, according to Bloomberg. Records from the Department of Defense note that between 2011 and 2016, 388 Navy sailors and 181 Air Force airmen were diagnosed with HIV.