A 56-year-old East Point man who was imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth almost 30 years ago because he had a homosexual relationship with another soldier in the 1980s received a presidential pardon on Tuesday.
And just like that, it’s as if Peter Heidgerd was never convicted on July 17, 1989, of conduct unbecoming an officer while at Fort Gordon near Augusta. With the pardon, he no longer has a felony record.
Heidgerd’s pardon came on the same day that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced that the military’s equal opportunity policy would protect gay and lesbian members in the U.S. military from discrimination.
Two other Georgians — Lisa Ann Bell of College Park and Roger Burel Patterson of Dahlonega — were also pardoned Tuesday, but they had been convicted of drug crimes.
President Barack Obama pardoned 64 people — all but Heidgerd convicted of drug, tax or financial crimes. He also commuted the sentences of 209 people, nine from Georgia, and ordered the release of almost 1,400 federal inmates — more than 400 serving life in prison — who were sentenced under the severe mandatory minimum laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s during the “war on drugs.”
Robin Clark, Heidgerd’s attorney, said Heidgerd was released from prison in 1990 after serving a year. But in some ways, he wasn’t completely free. “He had a felony on his record. So when he came back to Georgia to find a job he could not get one because no one would hire him with a felony on his record and less than honorable discharge,” Clark said.
Clark didn’t yet know whether the pardon would change the status of Heidgerd’s discharge from the Army. That was part of her repeated requests over the past six years, and she expects an answer to be included in the information and the letter from the president she will receive in a few weeks.
Heidgerd’s reaction to the pardon was low-key … sort of. He heard the news from his attorney, who called while Heidgerd was at his landscaping job.
“I have to put the phone down for one second,” Heidgerd quietly said to his lawyer.
“Then I heard him scream,” Clark said.
Heidgerd told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “I didn’t let this whole thing get me down. I didn’t need a president to pardon me, but this helps.”
He said he’s not bitter, though he recognizes the loss to his career.
His faith in Jesus Christ is strong.
“I’ve never arrived. I’ve never been allowed to arrive,” Heidgerd said. “But I have been the person I wanted to be. … I knew whatever I was as a person that I needed to love me and be me.”
Obama’s pardon and commutation list released on Tuesday also included Chelsea Manning, the Army intelligence analyst arrested in 2010 and convicted of releasing records of American military and diplomatic activities worldwide. Manning is a transgender woman who has served almost seven years of her 35-year sentence with men at the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. She is to be freed on May 17.
The Pentagon’s decision to treat discrimination based on sexual orientation the same as discrimination based race, religion, sex, age or national origin comes almost four years after the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” That law, instituted in 1994 during President Bill Clinton’s administration, barred homosexual men and women who were serving in the military from being openly gay.
“Recognizing that our openness to diversity is one of the things that (has) allowed us to be the best in the world, we must ensure that everyone who’s able and willing to serve has the full and equal opportunity to do so,” Defense Secretary Carter told reporters. “And we must start from a position of inclusivity, not exclusivity.”