September 17, 2012

One year after 'don't ask, don't tell' repeal, US military marches on

Army Maj. Heather Mack deployed last year one day before the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the policy that banned gays, lesbians and bisexuals from serving openly in the U.S. military. Mack left the country she had served for 16 years knowing she could lose her job if she told her colleagues she was in a stable, loving relationship with another woman. By the time her plane landed in Kuwait on Sept. 20, 2011, she was free to tell anyone she pleased.

Army Maj. Heather Mack deployed last year one day before the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the policy that banned gays, lesbians and bisexuals from serving openly in the U.S. military.

Mack left the country she had served for 16 years knowing she could lose her job if she told her colleagues she was in a stable, loving relationship with another woman. By the time her plane landed in Kuwait on Sept. 20, 2011, she was free to tell anyone she pleased.

“I totally expected a feeling of something different, that something had changed,” Mack recalls. “But it was just like any other day at work – except that for me, personally, I felt like this huge weight had been lifted.”

Military leaders and gay and lesbian service members say the year that has passed since the repeal took effect has been remarkable for what hasn’t happened. Recruitment and retention have not fallen off as some opponents of the repeal predicted they would. Harassment of homosexual troops has not significantly increased. Unit cohesion has not suffered.

In fact, some veterans who left the military under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” have rejoined. And some active-duty soldiers say cohesion has improved in their units, because people no longer have to completely guard their personal lives.

“Basically, there’s been no change in the way we do business,” says Troy Rolan, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon. “All our soldiers, they’re soldiers – regardless of who or what they are. They’re professionals. They do what they need to do to make sure everybody’s taken care of.”

Sgt. Maj. Carlos Gomez, a 25-year Army veteran and command sergeant major for the 1st Theater Sustainment Command at Fort Bragg, was with his troops in Iraq when the ban was lifted.

“No problems at all,” Gomez says. “It just seemed like there was not even a bump in the road.”

Some opponents of lifting the ban say it’s too early to tell the full impact.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Michigan-based Center for Military Readiness, which opposes allowing gays to serve in the military, insists the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has caused problems. A same-sex commitment ceremony this summer at a chapel on Fort Polk, La., was “extremely divisive in that community,” she said.

The effect of the repeal on recruitment and retention has been masked by the down economy, Donnelly said, as people choose to stay in the military because they can’t easily find other jobs. The real effects, she said, “may not be visible for several years.”

‘I never had to lie’

Advocates for gay and lesbian service members have moved on to the next front in their fight for equal rights: the push to extend to same-sex couples the military benefits and support systems that married heterosexual couples enjoy.

Already, gay and lesbian troops say there have been noticeable improvements in their work environments.

Before the repeal, Mack was called in to answer questions about her sex life three times after she joined the Army in 1995. Each time, she was asked specifically if she was in a relationship with a particular woman. It was a different woman each time, but all were fellow service members.

“I never had to lie,” Mack says. “I wasn’t sleeping with any of them.”

As a female soldier, she says, she always felt she had to work harder than her male counterparts to prove she could do her job, first as a transportation officer, then a logistician. She now handles training and mobilization of National Guard and reserve troops preparing for deployment and helps with “retrograding,” bringing equipment back from theaters of war.

While others had pictures of their loved ones on their desks, talked about their families and attended social events with their boyfriends, girlfriends and spouses, Mack says she never shared details of her personal life at work. Still, she says, she decided long before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed that she would not lie if asked about her sexual orientation – even if it meant she would be pushed out of the service, as more then 14,000 people were over the 18 years when the policy was in effect.

She had to be careful sometimes how she introduced Ashley Broadway, her partner since 1997, even after the couple started a family.

Mack gave birth to Carson, now 2, while she was stationed at Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas. Before they went to the hospital on post, Mack and Broadway spent thousands of dollars having a lawyer draw up the papers necessary to allow Broadway to make medical decisions for Mack and the baby, if needed.

Broadway carried the papers with her when Mack went into labor, hoping not to have to use them. Because “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still in effect, Mack introduced Broadway as “my sister,” who stayed with her through 36 hours of labor and an emergency C-section.

When Mack was assigned to Fort Bragg a little over a year ago, she spent a week getting a special “caregiver” permit allowing Broadway to drive onto post from their house in a Harnett County subdivision filled with military families. With the permit, Broadway, a teacher who stays home to take care of Carson, can drive onto Fort Bragg to take him to medical appointments and some children’s events. But while Carson is considered a military dependent, Broadway is not because she and Mack are not married.

Same-sex marriage is legal in the District of Columbia and six states, not including North Carolina. The military does not recognize same-sex marriage in any state. So Broadway is not eligible for military medical coverage, isn’t part of a family readiness group if Mack deploys, and can’t get financial or other counseling offered to heterosexual spouses of service members.

Same-sex partners can’t live in base housing and can’t shop in post commissaries. They can’t be named as beneficiaries of death benefits when a soldier is killed in combat. If the service member is stationed overseas – an assignment that might last up to three years – the military will not give a same-sex partner financial or other help to make the move.

Other segments of the federal government have extended some benefits to same-sex partners but not the military, which has about 1.4 million active-duty members.

“We’re living with the reality of two classes of service members,” says Zeke Stokes, spokesman for the Washington-based Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which has filed a lawsuit to try to force the military to change. “We have one class that receives all the benefits and support and recognition that the military can provide to them. And then we have the gay, lesbian and bisexual service members who are treated as second-class.”

For one couple, a surprise

Service members and advocacy groups say some gay, lesbian and bisexual troops still are afraid to reveal their sexual identities to military coworkers and supervisors out of fear they might be passed over for promotions or assignments, or even fired under other pretenses.

Since he joined the Army as a musician nine years ago, Capt. Daniel Toven never pretended he had a girlfriend, as some gay soldiers do. But he also didn’t take male dates to social events where his band mates would be present.

When he was scheduled to take command of the Army’s Ground Forces Band at Fort Bragg earlier this year, he hoped to bring his partner, Johnathan Taylor, to the ceremony, but thought Taylor might have to attend anonymously.

“I had always dreamed of this, seeing these military ceremonies,” Toven says. “I thought, ‘Gosh, wouldn’t it be great to have my significant other to be present and be acknowledged for the role that he played in my life at a ceremony like this.’

“But Johnathan and I talked about it, and we agreed that the most important thing was the mission and my soldiers. And if that meant we couldn’t have him fully incorporated in the ceremony, we would make that sacrifice.”

They didn’t have to.

Not only was Toven able to put Taylor on the guest list as his partner, but Taylor was seated on the front row with Toven’s parents. Toven and his commanders thanked Taylor during the ceremony, and Taylor stood in the receiving line afterward.

Recently, Toven’s commander invited the couple to his home for dinner. Taylor, a nurse, couldn’t make it that evening, but Toven went.

In a gesture of generosity that others might have taken for granted, “the commander actually sent a plate home for me,” Taylor says. “Lasagna. And it was really good. But I don’t know if that was the taste of the food, or the sentiment that went with it.”

Toven believes the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will result in a better force overall.

“In a military that’s all volunteer, we always want to have the very best serving our nation,” Toven says. “Now, we can get the very best, capitalize on their skills and put them at the service of our nation, regardless of their sexual orientation.”

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