02.03.10

The Victims of Don't Ask, Don't Tell

The White House and the Pentagon are pushing to repeal the ban, but for many of our nation’s best soldiers, it’s too little too late. Read ten of their stories.

Justin Elzie

Sergeant Justin Elzie was the first marine ever investigated and discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Believing that President Clinton would succeed in overturning the ban on gays and lesbians serving in the military, Elzie came out on camera on ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings on January 29th, 1993, the day the overturn goal was announced. "I thought I had cover," Elzie said. "I thought it was a great chance to have a voice for myself and the tens of thousands of other gay servicemen and women… It was an empowering experience, as well, after living two lives, or sublimating one, for so long." A Marine-of-the-Year winner, Elzie had been accepted into an early retirement program, but the Marine Corps removed him from that program and discharged him after his announcement. Elzie ultimately won a four-year court battle, however, and was discharged with a $30,000 early retirement bonus. He now lives in Jersey City, New Jersey and is a student at an acting conservatory in New York City.

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Anthony Woods

An Iraqi vet with West Point and Harvard degrees, Anthony "Tony" Woods was forced to leave a promising Army career after he came out in 2008. He received an honorable discharge under DADT rules. “I knew getting into it that if I took a stand, it would be a costly decision and it certainly has become one,” Woods said in an interview with The Daily Beast. “But people have to take a stand for what's right. There's a reason this policy is on the front burner now... We're a country fighting two wars, having trouble recruiting, yet we want to turn away some of our most talented, most well-trained soldiers?” Woods, 29, subsequently ran for U.S. Congress in California's 10th Congressional District to fill a vacant seat, in a bid to become the first openly gay African American in Congress. He lost the bid, receiving 8 percent of a special election vote in September.

Pepe Johnson

At first, Pepe Johnson thought he could live with the DADT restrictions. “They weren't asking me, and I had no intention of telling them,” said Johnson, who joined the Army in 2000 and was named Fort Sill soldier of the year in 2001. “It wasn't their business, anyway.” But Johnson soon became disillusioned. Thinking he would be the “magic bullet” to kill the law, Johnson outed himself to his commander in 2003. “I got all my paperwork ready, and then I sat on it for a few weeks,” Johnson told dallasvoice.com. “Finally, I went to my commander. The first thing he said to me was, ‘What if I tell your mother you're saying you're gay?’ I looked him right in the eye and said, ‘Feel free. My mother already knows.’” It was the first in a series of what Johnson called “childish tactics” that his commanders used to try to humiliate him before finally granting him an honorable discharge. Johnson now lives in Texas and owns a small business in the energy industry.

Victor Fehrehbach

After a man accused Air Force Lt. Col Victor Fahrenbach of rape, the Air Medal winner was forced to come out to investigators to defend himself. Fehrenbach was soon cleared by police and the Ada County prosecutor's office, but his admission that he had engaged in gay sex was a violation of DADT. Fehrenbach, 40, was notified that he would be discharged, costing him a $46,000 annual pension and the dignity of retiring on his own terms, as his Air Force parents both had. With an appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show, the White House took notice, inviting him to attend a ceremony for the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Fehrenbach asked Obama for his help and urged him to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Fehrenbach told Maddow that night that Obama said: “We're gonna get this done.” Fehrenbach's discharge is still pending.

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

Darren Manzella

Two hours was all the time Darren Manzella had in Iraq before he was discharged under DADT for “homosexual conduct admission” during his second deployment. Someone began threatening Manzella, who was questioning his sexual orientation and dating a man for the first time, via e-mail and phone calls in 2004. The U.S. Army sergeant sought counsel from his supervisor, who Manzella believed, as he told CNN was “somewhat sympathetic.” But his advisor reported Manzella the next morning, setting off a month-long investigation that wielded no proof. In 2006, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network contacted the serviceman to share his story with 60 Minutes, which he accepted to help others struggling with their sexuality in the military. But that decision ended up losing Manzella his career when he was discharged in June 2008. “I had lived openly for nearly two years,” Manzella told CNN. “I thought that was a huge step forward, that finally people were being recognized on their performance and how well they served their country and their comrades and peers.”

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Jo Ann Santangelo

Todd Belok

It wasn’t Todd Belok who told the military about his sexual orientation—it was someone else. The then 18-year-old George Washington University Naval ROTC student was kicked out in 2008 after two fellow NROTC members reported seeing him kissing his boyfriend at a frat party. “We kissed at the party,” he admitted to his school paper, The Hoya. “I was surprised when my commanding officer called me about it a few weeks later.” Belok is now determined to make a change. “I cannot rejoin the Navy unless the current policy changes, and I’m focused on lobbying Congress to ensure that happens,” Belok said.

David Hall

David Hall was determined to follow in his father’s and stepfather’s footsteps when he joined the Air Force in 1996. Though he succeeded, earning a long list of honors and awards, in 2002 the then-U.S. Air Force staff sergeant was discharged when a fellow cadet reported he was gay despite holding the number-one position in his ROTC class. “Just like that, based off what one person said, ended my dream of getting to fly planes,” Hall, who now works for a Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, told MSNBC. “The only reason I couldn’t become a pilot was because I was gay. It had nothing to do with how well I did while I was in the air force or as a cadet,” he added to CBC News.

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Kevin Wolf / AP Photo

Jenny Kopfstein

In 1995, two years after DADT was put into action, Jenny Kopfstein left her civilian college to enter the United States Naval Academy. After Kopfstein was given her first duty station, she found it difficult to conceal her sexual orientation and maintain her strong values of honesty and honor while on board the ship. She decided to give her Commanding Officer a letter, stating that she was a lesbian, but that she’d also like to continue her service. Nineteen months and two deployments later, a Board of Inquiry finally decided Kopfstein should be discharged under DADT in 2002. “I want to get back into the military because I’m an American, too, and I want to serve,” she told her local San Diego news in response to the efforts to repeal the policy.

Stephen Benjamin and David Santos

After joining the Navy in 2003, Stephen Benjamin proved to be a desirable talent. He attended the Defense Language Institute, from which he graduated in the top 10 percent of his class, and then spent two years teaching troops as an Arabic translator. Though Benjamin thought he was ready serve in Iraq, the young serviceman was never deployed and instead, ousted from the Navy under DADT in March 2007. When his roommate, David Santos (who is also gay) was deployed to Falluja in 2006, they used their only form of communication—the military’s instant-messaging system on monitored government computers—to keep in touch. In October of that year, Benjamin’s base was inspected and his and Santos’ messages were flagged as violations merely because they implicated his sexual orientation. “I could have written a statement denying that I was homosexual, but lying did not seem like the right thing to do,” Benjamin recounted to The New York Times.