Efforts are inspired by a late U.S. Navy veteran in Oregon and his mother’s fight to ensure he was buried at Willamette National Cemetery
Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley is announcing several actions that continue his longtime work as a champion in Congress to restore full honor to veterans and servicemembers who have been mistreated in the U.S. Armed Forces due to their sexual orientation.
“America’s servicemembers and veterans come from all walks of life, but they all share a common commitment to serve our nation,” Merkley said. “Everyone who serves and sacrifices for our country deserves the full measure of our appreciation—regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.”
It is estimated that 114,000 servicemembers were discharged on the basis of their sexual orientation between WWII and the official end of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2011, while an estimated 870,000 LGBTQ+ servicemembers have been impacted by hostility, harassment, assault, and law enforcement targeting due to the military policies in place. Still today, many veterans who were discharged on discriminatory grounds are unable to access their benefits, and those still serving face inconsistent protections that make them vulnerable to harassment and put their careers at risk.
As a critical step to take on this issue, Senator Merkley joined his colleagues in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives this week—the 12th anniversary of the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—in support of the Commission on Equity and Reconciliation in the Uniformed Services Act. This bill, introduced by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Representatives Mark Takano (CA-39) and Sara Jacobs (CA-51), would establish a commission to investigate the historic and ongoing impacts of discriminatory military policies on LGBTQ+ servicemembers and veterans.
Senator Merkley, as an original cosponsor, specifically pushed to include a provision into the Senate version of the bill that directs the commission to recommend appropriate remedies for how the federal government may examine the issue of burial rights denied to members of uniformed services and veterans who were prematurely discharged due to the discriminatory policies against them. The findings must then be reported to Congress and would be used to inform Senator Merkley’s future legislative action on the issue.
Senator Merkley’s latest actions to champion LGBTQ+ servicemembers and veterans is inspired by late U.S. Navy veteran Martin Cerezo, who was on track to have a long military career until he was outed as gay in 1990 after 19 months of service. At the time, the U.S. Armed Forces actively discriminated against LGBTQ+ Americans and tried to seek out and discharge gay servicemembers like Martin. He was given an “Other Than Honorable” discharge, which weighed heavily on him until he passed away in Portland in 2021.
Martin’s mother, Cheryle, promised to honor his dying wish to be buried at Willamette National Cemetery. Cheryle has fought doggedly to ensure that promise was kept. When the National Cemetery Administration said Martin could not be buried at Willamette because he did not meet the two-year service requirement, Cheryle asked Senator Merkley to step in and help—just as he did in 2013 when he played a key role in securing a waiver for an Air Force veteran to bury her same-sex spouse at Willamette. For Martin, Senators Merkley and Wyden ensured a letter was included in Cheryle’s exemption request to the VA’s Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs. An exception decision can take anywhere from 18 months to five years, but on the urging of the Senators, it was granted in less than three months.
In June 2023, Martin was laid to rest in Willamette with full military honors—but Senator Merkley’s fight for other LGBTQ+ veterans is not over.
Additionally, as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senator Merkley has also worked to include language in the FY24 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies funding bill that would direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to submit a report detailing the progress on their 2021 decision to allow eligible discharged LGBTQ+ veterans to receive their due benefits, including military burial rights. The report would include determining the number of eligible veterans who have received their due benefits after this decision, as well as efforts by the VA to conduct outreach towards these eligible veterans to ensure they are aware of the processes to receive their benefits. The funding bill is pending consideration by the full Senate.
“LGBTQ+ servicemembers and veterans who honorably served our nation like Martin—or their families and loved ones—should not have to jump through hoops like Cheryle did to access the honors and benefits they have earned,” Merkley said. “I will keep pushing to fulfill America’s promise to treat all of our servicemembers and veterans with dignity and respect, no matter who they love or how they identify.”
“Sen. Merkley’s support in helping me get burial benefits for my son was invaluable and I will always be grateful to him and his office,” said Cheryle Cerezo-Gardiner, Martin’s mother. “No parent, no loved one, should have to fight their government to do the right thing, even as they’re grieving for their veteran who was wrongfully discharged. This nation owes a debt to LGBTQIA+ veterans who knew the risks of being outed and chose to serve anyway. This bill is just a first step for the thousands of women and men who seek justice. Thank you to Sen. Merkley and the sponsors of this bill, from the bottom of a grateful mother’s heart.”
To read the full story of how Cheryle, with the support of Senator Merkley’s office, honored her son’s service, click HERE.
The full text of the Commission on Equity and Reconciliation in the Uniformed Services Act is HERE.
The full text of FY24 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies funding bill report is HERE.