BOSTON — A military college student who says he was removed from his duties for testing positive for HIV is suing state and federal military officials.
The 20-year-old student from Revere, Massachusetts, says in a complaint filed Thursday that he tested positive for HIV in October 2020 during his sophomore year at the nation's oldest private military college, Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont.
The student, who is identified in the lawsuit only as “John Doe,” said in the complaint filed in federal court in Burlington, Vermont, that he was deemed unfit for service and dropped from the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and the Vermont Army National Guard despite being healthy, asymptomatic and on a treatment regimen that renders his viral load undetectable.
The U.S. Department of Defense and the Vermont National Guard, which are among those named in the lawsuit, didn’t respond to emails seeking comment Thursday.
Lawyers for Civil Rights, a Boston-based group that filed the lawsuit on the student’s behalf, declined to provide copies of the student's separation notice and other discharge documents, saying they're unredacted and will be submitted under seal to the court.
But the lawsuit describes in some detail the circumstances around the dismissals, including that the student was informed he would not be able to get a scholarship or contract through the ROTC program due to his HIV status and that he was no longer allowed to continue his monthly training periods with the state National Guard.
Under Department of Defense regulations, HIV is among a lengthy list of medical conditions that automatically disqualify a person from enlisting, being appointed as a commissioned officer and enrollment as an ROTC scholarship cadet.
The student’s lawyers argue the military’s HIV policies date to the 1980s when little was known about the condition, which, if left untreated, can lead to AIDS.
“A generation after they were first developed, the military’s policies are highly anachronistic and fail to reflect current medical reality,” the Lawyers for Civil Rights organization argues in the lawsuit. “Advances in medical treatment and prevention have transformed HIV from a progressive, terminal disease to a manageable condition.”
A federal judge in Virginia ruled last month that service members who are HIV-positive cannot be discharged or barred from becoming an officer solely because they’re infected with the virus.
Sophia Hall, deputy litigation director with Lawyers for Civil Rights, said the student's case is unrelated because the Virginia ruling only applied to those already in military service.
The student, in a statement provided by his lawyers, said he hopes to restore his military standing in order to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather and uncles who served in the armed forces. The lawsuit also asks the court to invalidate the military regulations and policies that led to his dismissal from the national guard and ROTC.