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At Last! A Navy Vet Celebrates the End of DADT

by Shaun Knittel
Contributor
Monday Sep 19, 2011
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No longer will the nation be denied the service of thousands of patriotic LGB -- no "T" yet -- Americans because of their sexual orientation. On Sept. 20, the U.S. military’s ban on openly Gay service known as "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" (DADT) will end. The nation’s estimated 65,000 active duty and reserve LGB troops will no longer be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder, in order to serve the country they love.

After 18 years and nearly 15,000 ruined military careers, our national nightmare is finally over.

Today, Tuesday, DADT has mercifully died.

This is the final nail in a coffin that began to be sealed in a monumental and historic moment for the LGBT community (and America) on Dec. 22, 2010, when President Barack Obama signed the DADT Repeal Act of 2010 during a ceremony at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Department of Defense, it should be noted, is the world’s largest employer.

"I have spoken to every one of the service chiefs and they are all committed to implementing this change swiftly and efficiently," Obama assured the hundreds of cheering attendees at the ceremony. "We are not going to be dragging our feet to get this done."

And he and his administration didn’t, either. From the time the DADT Repeal Act was signed until present day, only a handful of servicemembers were asked to leave the service under DADT (three of them to be exact, including one officer). The Pentagon set about -- under direct orders of President Obama, the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff and the Secretary of Defense -- implementing the repeal.

Since the beginning of January the new reality of openly LGB military began to take shape. Anti-Gay discrimination within the ranks of the U.S. armed forces is no longer acceptable behavior. Those who will not comply will be disciplined accordingly. We won.

But the victory did not come without a cost. Although DADT will not be looked at kindly by American history, its imprint on the lives of thousands of Americans will forever leave an imprint stemmed from bigotry and ignorance.

Some fought and won, while others lost. Some paved the way as others fell to the wayside. These are the casualties of a social justice war in which no Purple Heart medals were given. Just discharge papers.

DADT By the Numbers

The cost of DADT - in dollars and social impact - is staggering. In 1993, as a compromise between then-President Bill Clinton, the Pentagon and Republicans in Congress, Clinton signed DADT into law, which mandated the discharge of openly LGB service members.

The discriminatory law has ruined more than 14,500 careers since the law became official Department of Defense policy. And that’s just the beginning. It is estimated that $1.3 billion has been spent by the U.S. government to ban gay servicemembers since 1980.

In 2001, under then-President George W. Bush, the number of servicemembers fired under DADT reached 1,273 -- the highest number of discharges in a single year to date. A 2003 GAO study identified almost $200 million in costs for the first ten years of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," while concluding that total costs could not be estimated. A follow-up study by an expert commission put these costs at more than $363 million.

In addition, the case could be made that by not allowing open LGB service the nation’s national security was made more vulnerable. While the CIA, FBI, State Department, the Defense Department on the civilian side, and defense contractors do not discriminate based on sexual orientation, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps did.

The Pentagon reports that 75 percent of young Americans are ineligible to serve in the military because of inadequate education, criminal records or weight problems. Conduct waivers have been given for recruits with records of bomb threats, sex crimes and negligent or vehicular homicide.

And yet qualified, smart, law-abiding and fit youths who want to serve have been excluded merely because of their sexual orientation. According to the GAO, as of 2003, the military had discharged more than 750 mission-critical service members and more than 320 with skills in important languages such as Arabic, Korean and Farsi.

Martyrs of DADT

The road to repeal has been a treacherous one. The journey to freedom’s mountain has claimed careers, marriages, and in some cases, lives.

In a case that became synonymous with the 1990s "gays in the military debate" that culminated in DADT repeal, Radioman Petty Officer Third Class Allen R. Schindler, Jr., of the U.S. Navy, was killed in a public toilet in Sasebo, Nagasaki, Japan. Airman Apprentice Terry M. Helvey, who served on the same ship as Schindler, stomped Schindler to death and left him lying on the bathroom floor until the Shore Patrol and the key witness to the incident carried out Schindler’s body to a nearby bridge. Schindler had suffered at least four fatal injuries to the head, chest and abdomen. The brutal murder left behind a nearly unrecognizable corpse that was only identifiable by the tattoo on his arm.

Barry Winchell’s murder also made national headlines and paved the way for more open discussions surrounding openly gay servicemembers in the U.S. military. Fellow soldier Calvin Glover struck Winchell, an infantry soldier in the U.S. Army, in the head with a baseball bat, as he slept on a cot outside near the entry to the room he shared with another accomplice in the murder, Justin Fisher, in the early morning hours of July 5, 1999. Winchell died of massive head injuries the next day.

In both cases, Schindler and Winchell’s attackers were prosecuted. But the ultimate damage had been done. Giving new meaning to friendly fire, the soldier and sailor were both killed, not on the battlefield of war, but at the hands of their fellow service member. Their stories sparked national outrage.

Indirectly, Schindler and Winchell’s tragic deaths contributed in no small way to Tuesday’s official repeal of DADT. The two are heroes of a different kind of war.

DADT Fighters: the Pioneers

Other servicemembers paid the price for freedom with their career.

Perry Watkins and DADT go hand-in-hand. Although Watkins, a native of Tacoma, Wash., served pre-DADT, his battle -- and subsequent win -- against the Department of Defense were precursors for what was yet to come for thousands of LGB servicemembers.

When Watkins was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army in 1968, he identified himself as a homosexual. In fact, Watkins served openly as a gay man. He also performed in drag under the stage name Simone in Army clubs throughout Europe in the late 1970s. He was permitted to re-enlist three times before the Army sought his discharge in 1984 after the military adopted a more stringent policy on homosexual service members in 1981.

Watkins fought a very public battle against to U.S. Army to win back his career. In 1989, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco voted 7 to 4 to force the Army to allow Watkins re-enlist. The court did not tackle the broader question of whether homosexuals ought to be permitted to serve but rather cited the fact that Watkins had been permitted to re-enlist.

Watkins died at 48 years of age from complications from AIDS in 1996.

In what is the most famous DADT battle, Army Colonel Grethe Cammermeyer became the highest-ranking officer to be discharged under the discriminatory policy in 1992. The Vietnam War vet, Army nurse, and mother of four fought back.

On June 11, 1992, the same date as her official discharge, Cammermeyer filed a suit in Federal District Court in Seattle challenging the existing ban on open LGB service in the military and requested her reenlistment. Cammermeyer, like Watkins, won her case, was reinstated in the National Guard in June of 1994, and resumed her previous position as Chief Nurse of the Washington State National Guard.

She wrote her autobiography, "Serving in Silence," which became an acclaimed made-for-TV movie. Cammermeyer had the satisfaction of seeing herself portrayed by no less a star than Glenn Close, in one of her most memorable roles. Over the years Cammermeyer has remained a staunch proponent of DADT, calling on its repeal since it was established in 1993.

Cammemeyer Celebrates

"Having spent 21 years working toward acceptance of gays and lesbians serving in the military, the repeal of DADT feels like huge vindication for the effort," Cammermeyer said. "It was an unconscionable burden for gay service members to have to live with the constant threat of exposure while being willing to die for freedom of others anywhere in the world."

"Prior to my case gaining notoriety there were so many unrecognized heroes who took on the effort to overturn earlier bans against gays and lesbians serving in the military," she said. "I am humbled that some would consider me a hero though for me there was only the question of doing what was right, honorable, honest and with integrity. We take on the challenges we believe unjust expecting fairness and justice in the end."

Cammermeyer says the question should be how will lifting DADT change the lives of gay servicemembers, not how will the military change.

"Now they can live their truth, not worry about losing their careers if it becomes know, not have to live with the burden of lying, know that their loved ones can communicate with them during separation," Cammermeyer said. "We will be a better country for no longer discriminating against a group of people willing to serve and die for their country."

"The repeal of DADT shows what effort it takes to change a society and that it can be done," she concluded. "The military acts as a venue to demonstrate what remains unequal and unjust and allows us to continue the work toward equality and social justice, as must happen with repeal of DOMA."


Next: What the Future Holds



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