America’s veterans come from all walks of life, but they all share a common commitment to serve our nation. Jeff strongly believes that everyone who serves and sacrifices for our country deserves the full measure of our appreciation. That’s why he’s fighting to ensure that every veteran—regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation—is treated with dignity and respect, including late U.S. Navy veteran Martin Cerezo.
Martin joined the Navy shortly after graduating from high school in 1988, but before he enlisted, Martin came out as gay to his mother Cheryle. She says this was hard for her to process at first, but she quickly accepted Martin for who he always was.
“He was still my son. Nothing had changed about him. The only thing that had changed was that I had new information. He was still Martin. He was still my son and I loved him,” Cheryle Cerezo-Gardiner said.
The mother and son had always been close, and their mutual love for the Navy ran deep. Cheryle says their family boasted generations of “seafaring men,” and Martin thought the Navy would give him the same sense of direction and discipline. At first, he thrived.
“It was where he belonged. He always loved cars, vehicles of all kinds, airplanes, and he transferred that love to Navy ships,” said Cheryle.
Martin was based in San Diego and served aboard the famed USS Constellation, the last sail-only warship designed and built by the Navy. Because he was bilingual, he served as a translator when the ship docked at South American ports. Traveling, seeing the world, and meeting new people all spoke to Martin’s extroverted nature, and 19 months into his service it seemed like his potential in the Navy was limitless.
“He had perfect marks on all of his assessments. He was considered a squared away sailor. He was recommended for advancement, and he was told he had a fine career in the Navy. He just really loved it—it was perfect for him,” said Cheryle. “But then he called me one day and he was crying. Someone had outed him.”
At the time, the U.S. Armed Forces discriminated against gay Americans, and actively tried to seek out and discharge gay servicemembers. Martin was ordered to write down the names of fellow servicemen that he knew were gay. When he refused, Cheryle says the Navy offered “to go easy on him” and grant a “general” discharge, rather than a dishonorable discharge, if he complied.
“I told him you’ve got to trust the Navy will keep its word. You need to be honest about this because lying isn’t going to accomplish anything, and it will only make things worse. Well, it couldn’t get any worse.”
Martin followed orders, but the Navy gave him an “Other Than Honorable” discharge.
“He was 20 years old, and told that he was not honorable,” Cheryle said through tears.
This black mark on his record kept Martin from becoming a police officer, or following any future career path that he felt would hold meaning for him. Adrift, Martin moved around the country. Although he met his long-term partner and had many positive experiences along the way, Cheryle says he also got involved with drugs and drinking.
“He couldn’t settle down. I don’t know if he was running from something or looking for something,” Cheryle said.
In 2000, Martin was diagnosed with a serious liver disease, and he renewed his push to reverse his discharge status, but he was met with red tape in various government agencies. Cheryle and other family members also wrote letters to elected officials in several states, but she says there was never any real traction.
Years went by, and he was living with Cheryle in Portland in 2019 when the situation turned dire: he was diagnosed with liver cancer. He was treated and in remission, but the cancer came back more aggressive. Cheryle was Martin’s caretaker when he passed away at home in January 2021, surrounded by his family and loved ones, including his brother Jason, who also served in the Navy. Martin was cremated wearing Jason’s uniform.
Cheryle says that as she held Martin’s hand in his final moments, she made him a promise to honor his dying wish: to be buried at Willamette National Cemetery. In this mission, she has been relentless.
Cheryle was told she first needed to get Martin’s discharge upgraded to “Honorable,” which she did with the help of Lawyers Serving Warriors, a pro bono legal services group assisting veterans and service members with benefits issues.
Then came another big obstacle—the National Cemetery Administration said Martin could not be buried at Willamette because he did not meet the two-year service requirement.
Cheryle says this is where Jeff’s office came in and made all the difference.
While working with the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs (ODVA) on filing for an exemption from the two-year requirement, Cheryle learned about how Jeff played a key role in 2013 to get an Air Force veteran a waiver to bury her same-sex spouse at Willamette.
Cheryle says she reached out to Jeff’s office and spoke with one of his constituent services representatives, who immediately took the reins to ensure that a letter from Senators Merkley and Wyden was included in Cheryle’s exemption request to the VA’s Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs.
“She has just been there. She’s been right there for me,” Cheryle says of Jeff’s constituent services representative.
Cheryle says the ODVA cautioned that an exception decision like this could take anywhere from 18 months to five years, but with her two Senators backing her, it was granted in less than three months.
Martin will be buried in Willamette National Cemetery with military honors in June to coincide with Pride Month. While she is grateful that she kept her promise to her son, Cheryle says she knows her fight on behalf of other mistreated LGBTQ+ veterans must carry on.
“Martin told me he went into the Navy because he wanted to serve God and his country. He lived 30 years being called not honorable by the Navy that he loved.
“What I want now is when a veteran calls and says I am gay and had an ‘Other Than Honorable’ discharge and I need help, I want the VA to say you don’t have an ‘Other Than Honorable’ discharge anymore. It’s been upgraded, and now you can have your benefits. That’s not too much to ask.
“No mother, no spouse, no child, no veteran should ever have to go through this again—ever,” Cheryle said.
As Cheryle continues her mission to honor Martin and LGBTQ+ veterans across the country, she knows she has the support of Jeff and his office every step of the way.
“Senator Merkley is there to help. I think he really understands what being a public servant is. I am very thankful for both of my Senators who care about things like this,” Cheryle added.
Jeff has long been a fighter for restoring full honor to veterans who have been mistreated due to their sexual orientation. If you are an LGBTQ+ veteran or family member in Oregon in need of assistance, please contact Jeff’s office to help serve you.