Honoring a GOP Don’t Ask Ally

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network singles out Florida representative

Among other things, the national dinners of gay organizations are meant to showcase big announcements. At the gala put on by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, or SLDN, this past Saturday in Washington, the big one was the group’s decision to re-file its lawsuit to overturn the military’s gay ban after a judge in Boston recently dismissed the case.

This year, retired three-star Army general Claudia Kennedy called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell “a policy that serves no useful purpose” in her keynote address, and gay Marine Sergeant Brian Fricke delivered a speech on how the policy is out of step with the reality of actively serving lesbian and gay personnel.

As inspiring as the 750-plus guests found all this, there was also a smaller moment that equally demonstrated how Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell ranges far beyond who can and cannot serve in the Armed Forces, and why so many people had gathered in one place and paid so much to support SLDN’s fight.

It occurred while a group of veterans gathered around General Kennedy in the quiet of the banquet hall before the doors were opened to the main crowd.

As Kennedy shook hands with three former service members and thanked them for their service to the country, she asked what their DD-214 said for “reason for discharge.”

“Homosexual admission,” said Lieutenant Steve Boeckels, a West Pont graduate, kicked out of the Army after he had himself transferred from a virulently homophobic commander in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Sergeant Bleu Copas, a former Army Arabic linguist, was baited into revealing his sexuality online, and the information was then sent to his commanding officer. The same person also hacked into Copas’ personal e-mail account and forwarded incriminating evidence to his commander. It was enough to get Copas thrown out of the Army with a DD-214 notation of “homosexual acts.”

The DD-214, as it’s called, is the U.S. military’s discharge form, perhaps the most important document a veteran will ever own regarding past service. It’s a biography of a person’s service dates, locations, medals, and most importantly, how and why someone left service. Employers want to see it when a veteran applies for a job, especially ones in which their military skills are relevant. The Veterans Administration gets to see it when processing benefits. And even though most gay soldiers separated for violating Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell receive honorable discharges, the DD-214 qualifies that status with a “homosexual notation.”

“I don’t see what purpose it serves other than to disadvantage certain people,” Kennedy said. “It’s a final mark of disapproval that will follow them forever. At the least it’s inconsiderate, at the worst it’s a way for someone to make a point.”

The Department of Defense claims it is necessary to prevent a gay soldier honorably discharged from re-enlisting.

The unintended consequence is that sensitive personal information is put in an official document without the soldier’s say so, a final indignity from a government that views their status as incompatible with military service, Kennedy said.

“As you can imagine, if you are returning home to Arkansas or Mississippi, employers may not look favorably on such wording on your military paperwork. And most employers know to ask for the DD-214,” said Steve Ralls, an SLDN spokesman.

Army Specialist Jeff Howe told Kennedy that his family discovered his sexual orientation through the DD-214. Howe was shipped back to the U.S. for discharge at the end of his second Iraq tour when a background investigation revealed he had identified himself as gay in an online profile.

Unequal treatment on the DD-214 is just another fact that has motivated even some conservative Republicans such as Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to sign on to a bill crafted by Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Marty Meehan, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, that would ban any type of gay discrimination in the U.S. military.

At Saturday’s dinner, SLDN awarded Ros-Lehtinen the Randy Shilts Visibility Award, named for the late gay journalist who wrote the definitive book on gays in the Armed Forces, “Conduct Unbecoming.”

Unable to accept the award in person because of her daughter’s high school graduation in Miami, Ros-Lehtinen said in a telephone interview earlier Saturday afternoon that the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy was a failure, and that Meehan’s bill was simple “common sense.”

“A person’s sexual orientation has nothing to do with their ability to perform as a soldier or fighter. They risk their lives every day. We should be thanking them instead of destroying their careers,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

The Florida congresswoman cited the usual list of arguments supporting the ban’s elimination—money ill-spent on enforcing the policy, the loss of trained and competent troops, the expulsion of soldiers with critical skills such as Arabic-language fluency.

“Allowing service by gay and lesbian Americans is another way to ensure our military remains the best in the world,” she said.

But beyond this expedient, Ros-Lehtinen also said overturning the military’s gay ban was the right thing to do, terming the policy “discriminatory” and “unfair.”

More Republicans will have to join Ros-Lehtinen, however, before Meehan’s bill can advance. Out of more than 120 sponsors, only five are Republican. Two of these, Jim Kolbe of Arizona, who is gay, and New York’s Sherwood Boehlert are retiring this year.

When asked why she was a bit of a party maverick, Ros-Lehtinen said politics was to blame, that many Republicans were hesitant to embrace a traditionally liberal cause.

“But if it were brought up for a fair and honest debate many Republicans would vote for it,” she said.

Ros-Lehtinen said the outcome would be similar to what happened with hate crimes legislation, on which many Republicans voted their conscience instead of along the party line. Last September, during a floor debate on the Child Protection Act, Michigan Democrat John Conyers added the gay- and transgender-inclusive hate crime law as an amendment to the legislation. Republican House leaders had always thwarted any such attempt, but an overlooked procedural rule left the bill open for additions. Thirty Republicans voted for the law over the objections of their party leaders and the amendment easily passed.

Ros-Lehtinen’s support also emanates from her family. Her stepson is a Marine officer who just returned from an eight month Iraq tour, and her husband, Dexter Lehtinen, is a former Vietnam combat veteran awarded the Purple Heart.

She said her husband fully supports her stand on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

“We will someday view this policy the same way we now view racial segregation,” she said. “We will look back and wonder, ‘What we were thinking?’”