Soldier Up: HIV Positive and in the Military
Since the emergence of HIV/AIDS and its first clinical observation during the 1980’s, the disease has spread worldwide. As this year’s International AIDS Conference illustrated, HIV/AIDS has crossed national, religious, economic and cultural borders. One of the most intriguing borders thus far is that of the U.S. military.
In August 1985, the Department of Defense instituted a policy that called for the HIV screening of those who applied for military service. Two months later, active duty members were also screened for the disease. Presently, service members are tested on a biennial basis.
As it currently stands, individuals who test positive for HIV are ineligible to enlist in the U.S. military. The argument has been made that potential service members must be able to physically and emotionally withstand adverse situations and potential combat scenarios. In such conditions, the military cannot guarantee the availability and/or proper distribution of medication.
Although an artificial barrier has been constructed to prevent HIV-positive individuals from joining the military, the possibility still exists for active service members to be infected. Service members who test positive must complete a medical evaluation in order to ensure that they are fit to continue their service. If the result is favorable and the service member desires to remain enlisted, he or she may continue their service. In general, however, once a service member is confirmed to have HIV, that service member is unable to be deployed or stationed overseas.
Each branch of the military institutes its own policy when it comes to HIV-positive service members, although the inability to serve outside of the United States has been a common factor. Recently, the Department of the Navy revised its policy to allow service members within the branch to serve on selected large ship platforms and in military installations overseas. Whether or not this policy change will be adopted in part or spirit amongst the remaining branches has yet to be seen.
Another common factor among the branches is the implementation of written "safe sex" orders, which require service members diagnosed with HIV to inform their sexual partners of their HIV-positive status. The order also states that should service members engage in sexual activity they must always use a condom. Should a service member not follow these orders, he or she may be the subject of criminal prosecution.
Former soldier Monique Moree has experienced this prosecution first-hand. After joining the U.S. Army in 2003, Moree tested positive for HIV only a few years later, in 2005.
While Moree states that she felt a little support from the military after discovering her status, she also says that the process left her feeling like the military wanted to know more about her personal affairs than offering support. According to Moree, she was offered few resources other than a referral to an infectious disease clinic.
Moree would later be prosecuted for having sex with a fellow soldier without disclosing her HIV status. According to Moree, the other soldier discovered her status through the chain of command. While she was not incarcerated, Moree did end up leaving the Army.
Now she works with the SERO to promote change in current HIV criminalization laws. SERO, an organization that seeks to combat HIV-related stigma and advocates for HIV prevention polices based on science rather than preconceived notions about the disease, recently appeared in the nation’s capital to present before the President’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. Moree was one of the speakers that SERO brought to the event to address PACHA.
When asked what drove her to become such a vocal advocate, Moree focused on her desire to break the stigma associated with being HIV-positive and her drive to change HIV criminalization laws.
"I wanted my voice to be heard and to let everyone know that this disease can happen to anyone," said Moree.
While the U.S. military has created a barrier to prevent HIV from crossing its borders by denying HIV-positive applicants the ability to enlist, there is still the matter of those service members who contract HIV during their service. These service members currently reside in a de facto segregated community within the military community complete with special rules and special restrictions.
With the system currently in place, the experience of a service member who is HIV-positive in the U.S. military is dependent on a number of variables. The differences in policies among branches combined with the lingering stigma surrounding HIV has the potential to create a confusing and unpleasant environment for service members who are unsure of their options, rights and the resources available to them.