Ending ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ too little too late for gay cadet

(Illustration/Umpqua, Flickr)
(Illustration/Umpqua, Flickr)

Air Force ROTC cadet Mara Boyd pledged to uphold the principles of integrity, service before self, and excellence. But trying to adhere to those values not only unraveled a promising military career, it saddled Boyd with more than $30,000 in debt.

Boyd’s saga began in 2001, eight years after President Clinton signed into law the controversial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which bans openly gay, lesbian and bisexual people from serving in the U.S. military.

After an estimated 12,500 service members and ROTC cadets, like Boyd, were dismissed since 1993, Congress is trying again to reverse “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The Military Readiness Enhancement Act of 2009 was introduced on March 3 by U.S. Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., after the Obama administration signaled its support. Among the Colorado delegation, Reps. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, and Jared Polis, D-Boulder, have signed on as House co-sponsors. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is expected to carry the bill in the Senate. The San Francisco Chronicle reported last week that opposition to Tauscher’s bill is mounting in the House and Senate Armed Services committees where Reps. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, and Sen. Mark Udall will hold key votes.

While repealing the 16-year-old ban may bring a moral victory of sorts for gay and lesbian service members and their straight allies, the damage done to personal lives and the estimated $363.8 million cost of implementing “don’t ask, don’t tell” to replace military personnel discharged because of the ban, are often forgotten in the now-discredited hue and cry over unit cohesion.

Boyd’s experience in the University of Colorado at Boulder’s ROTC program provides an example of how Clinton’s political naivety and good intentions ran afoul of common sense.

After joining the collegiate officer training program in her sophomore year, she completed summer basic training camp at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Graduating in the top 10 percent of her class, Boyd returned to her childhood home in Ann Arbor, Mich. The plan was to kick back for a few weeks and then resume her military scholarship in the fall.

But things got complicated.

Spurred by conversations with a friend who was in the process of coming out, Boyd’s soul searching began about her own sexual orientation.

“So I decided when I got back and was sort of coming out to myself at school that I would take the year and try to figure out if I would be able to serve silently,” Boyd said.

“Even as a cadet, starting my third year in the program, we had never discussed it in ROTC in depth. I had no idea what it was. One of the Catch 22s is if I need to know what this law is I can’t go to my commander and say, ‘You know I’d like to discuss “don’t ask, don’t tell.”‘”

She stayed quiet during her junior year while trying to understand the implications of outing herself or staying in the closet; even the suspicion of homosexual behavior could launch an official military inquiry that could jeopardize her path to becoming an Air Force officer.

“I was really in a state of anguish about not being able to lead by example and have integrity,” she recalled. “It was just a matter of time before someone made that decision for me.”

The only option for military personnel is to stay closeted if they hope to continue their careers. However, a chance encounter with a female master sergeant confirmed her worst fears — remaining in the military would mean a life of publicly denying her sexuality.

“I knew I wouldn’t be able to lie and I wouldn’t be able to cover,” Boyd said. “As the generations pass and I think as the gay and lesbian youth come out and are coming out at younger ages and have better resources than the lying piece is a lot tougher. Some of the older generation are much more accustomed to having to lie and be closeted and hide that piece in their everyday life.

“I think it’s a burden for everyone no matter what age but for me, it just really ate away at me.”

At the start of her senior year, with just 12 cadets remaining in the original class of 100, Boyd told her commanding officer, then-Lt. Col. George Ballinger, that she was a lesbian. According to Air Force ROTC protocol she was required to write a memo outing herself, an exercise Boyd recalls as “a bit absurd.” She signed the declaration as the “character development officer,” a position that her fellow cadets had just nominated her to carry out for CU Boulder’s Detachment 105.

Ballinger followed military protocol and launched an investigation that resulted in Boyd’s suspension from the program, thrusting Boyd’s collegiate career into limbo. According to both Boyd and local news accounts at the time, Ballinger reluctantly pursued the probe, which would take nearly a year to complete.

In June 2003, the highly regarded cadet was drummed out of the officer training program and deemed “unfit for service” because of homosexual conduct. To add insult to injury, the government also demanded she repay her college scholarships and book stipends, now totaling $30,000 in out-of-state tuition bills for her sophomore and junior years. Despite the efforts of Colorado University administrators and then-Rep. Mark Udall in asking the Air Force ROTC to forgive Boyd’s debt, Brig. Gen. Michael Hankins, who supervised the nationwide programs denied the move, according to a story in the university’s faculty and staff newspaper, the Silver and Gold Record. Hankins declined to comment on the matter.

While Boyd was honest about her situation, it appears the military brass charged with writing the policy almost two decades ago were not.

Speaking on the March 3 broadcast of the Rachel Maddow Show, Nathaniel Frank, a senior researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Palm Center said of the 1993 military task force of generals and admirals that established the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy:

It was based on nothing. It was rooted in their own prejudices and fears. And they even said they didn’t know what ‘sexual orientation’ meant.

Or as Maddow said incredulously of the so-called empirical data to prove that gay service members would undermine unit cohesion: “They just made it up.”

Those old, debunked arguments are nothing new to Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit organization that is working to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” while providing free counsel to service members facing discrimination.

Sarvis notes a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in July 2008 showed that 75 percent of Americans think gays and lesbians should be able to serve in the military.

In the meantime, the policy remains and soldiers, sailors, marines and airman continue to be discharged from service. Though as the years since the initial 1993 controversy pass, the arbitrary nature of implementing the policy grows, reflecting the more tolerant public sentiment.

“Some are still able to serve successfully under “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the military, it just depends on the discretion of the commander,” said Sarvis. “Field commanders have enormous discretion … but the problem is you can’t plan a 20- or 30-year career around the good graces of your commander or that your commander will be supportive. At some point you’re going to get transferred or the commander will.”

Sarvis is optimistic that the Obama administration will avoid the political firefight endured by President Clinton, who failed to consult early with military leaders about developing the policy. Those hard lessons appear to have been learned — recent news reports indicate that the president is consulting with top Pentagon advisers, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen, on how to lift the ban. Gen. John Shalikashvili, the former Joint Chiefs chairman under Clinton who helped implement the policy, also favors repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

As for Boyd, the last six years have been very different from what she’d envisioned. She returned to CU Boulder and completed her degree. And while she’s still paying back the enormous scholarship debt to the federal government, if “don’t ask, don’t tell” is nullified, she might enlist again.

“I’ll consider joining up. If the ban is lifted, I will really want to be a part of that transition in the military,” Boyd told me. “To finish a commitment that I didn’t get to finish. I still have that emptiness of not having been able to see it through.

“I’d like to be a part of it as a part of the gay community and also to return to my military family.”

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