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In 2022, Martin Cerezo received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy. It was the one year anniversary of his death and more than three decades after his service.

Cerezo's mother, Cheryle Cerezo-Gardner, had fought for the decision—carrying on a long protracted petition process with the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs, which Cerezo himself started in 2020. The process took so long that Cerezo may not have known about the outcome. His mother delivered the decision while he lay on his deathbed.

“He was pretty much comatose at that point,” Cerezo-Gardner told the Mercury. “I went back to Martin and told him, and he held my hand.”

Cerezo's updated discharge came 33 years after he enlisted. He was discharged from the Navy early, after a fellow sailor outed him for being gay. 

“He called me, crying. Told me he’d been outed,” Cerezo-Gardner recalled. Her son’s commanders told him he needed to provide names of other gay members of the crew. He was hesitant to comply.

“He’d been told that if he cooperated, the Navy would go easy on him, that the worst that could happen would be a general discharge,” Cerezo-Gardner said. “He was given a direct order and told he needed to follow it or go in the brig (temporary confinement). I said ‘You do what you've been taught to do, you tell the truth.’ And so he did. He kept his end of the bargain and they did not keep their end.”

The Navy released Cerezo on “other than honorable” discharge. It haunted him for decades afterward. His discharge status and short duration of service wasn’t just a source of shame, it also robbed him of his livelihood. Cerezo’s mother says it kept him from landing jobs he wanted, including as a Portland police officer.

“If you can imagine being 20 and having your rank stripped from your uniform and being escorted off the ship and having your card taken away,” Cerezo-Gardner said. “The shame, disappointment, sorrow.”

At the time, Cerezo wasn’t out to anyone else in his family. His mother was the only person who knew. “We made up a big story about how the Navy was letting people out. They didn’t need as many people,” she said. “He came home and that’s what we told everybody.”

What happened to Cerezo isn’t unique.

The Department of Defense estimates nearly 42,750 service members were discharged “on the basis of homosexual conduct” from 1970 until the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in 2011. Just over 93% of those veterans were discharged under honorable, general, or uncharacterized conditions, a defense official told the Mercury, though other reports estimate the number of veterans unfairly given dishonorable discharges far exceeds official reports.

Martin Cerezo, photographed in his early 30s. (Photo courtesy Cheryle Cerezo-Gardner)

In 2020, Cerezo learned that he had less than six months to live. He'd been living with cryptogenic cirrhosis of the liver since 2000, managing it without access to veterans benefits. In 2019, he learned he had liver cancer.  It was small and treatable, until it wasn’t. 

At age 50, he moved in with his mother in Southeast Portland, and she cared for him while he received hospice care through his illness. While her son was facing a health battle, Cerezo-Gardner was fighting, too. For years, her son tried to fix his military service record, unsuccessfully. When his health deteriorated, Cerezo-Gardner took up the cause.

Just days before Cerezo’s death, while he lay unconscious, his mother received word his military status would be updated. She told him as much, though she wasn't sure he could hear the news. After his death, she followed up with the VA’s office, and the situation became complicated again.

“I called to find out what was happening with his discharge,” she said. “The person I had been in contact with was no longer at the Portland office. They told me if I wanted to pursue it, I'd have to reopen his case as next of kin.”

With an “other than honorable” release and less than two years of service on his record, Cerezo wouldn’t be eligible for burial at a veterans cemetery. 

Cerezo-Gardner found Lawyers Serving Warriors, a legal group that assists veterans and families. Letters from Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley and Sen. Ron Wyden helped Cerezo-Gardner get her son’s service duration updated to a full two years, making him eligible for burial with military honors. By the first anniversary of his death, she had Cerezo’s updated DD214 service form with an “honorable discharge” status.

“It’s the last thing I can ever do for him,” Cerezo-Gardner said. “I can't ever scratch his back or give him a hug or tell him I love him. I can only bury him. But I can bury him the way he wanted to be buried.”

For two years Cerezo's ashes sat by his mother's bedside. On June 9, as Pride celebrations began to kick off in Oregon, his family gathered at Willamette National Cemetery for a memorial service, where his ashes will remain. 

Cheryle Cerezo-Gardner is given a flag during a memorial service for her son, Martin Cerezo, at Willamette National Cemetery June 9. (Courtesy Willamette National Cemetery)

Cerezo-Gardner said the process was cathartic, but she’s not done fighting. 

“It doesn’t end there,” she says. “I don't want anybody else to have to go through what [we] went through.”

Cerezo-Gardner wants to see legislation, or presidential clemency for all veterans who were “discharged for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.”

“Their time of service should be upgraded and their benefits should be granted and discharge status changed,” she insists. It wouldn’t be unprecedented. President Jimmy Carter pardoned men who dodged the Vietnam War draft. Decades earlier, President Andrew Johnson granted amnesty to confederate soldiers who took up arms against the United States.

Both Merkley and Wyden say they support efforts to restore LGBTQ veterans’ military honors, but neither has proposed any legislation.

“Senator Merkley has long been a fighter for restoring full honor to veterans who have been mistreated due to their sexual orientation,” Molly Prescott, a spokesperson for Sen. Merkley said. She noted the senator’s key role in helping an Air Force veteran get a waiver in 2013 to bury her wife at the Willamette National Cemetery. The legislative staffer said Merkley is “fully supportive of all avenues that would lead to administrative changes to correct negative discharge statuses for LGBTQ+ veterans who were kicked out simply for being themselves.”