DADT Ends, But What Will Actually Change?

On Tuesday, the Pentagon officially terminated "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." More than 14,000 troops were discharged under the law that banned gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military. The repeal interrupted the discharge of Lt. Colonel Victor Fehrenbach. He speaks with host Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: Now we turn to another controversial issue that has turned a corner. Today marks the official end of "don't ask, don't tell," the law that banned gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.

SEAN SOLLA: "Don't ask, don't tell" is dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

HEATHER BAPTISTE: For everyone out there who has a stripe on their collar or on their arm, we're here for the same thing, and it's a beautiful thing to be able to fight for that.

MARTIN: That was Sean Sala, a former sailor, and Heather Baptiste, an Air Force member, in San Diego last night. Celebrations were also held in New York City and at the Pentagon.

More than 14,000 service members have been discharged under the 1993 policy, but the careers of many others fell under a cloud when they were investigated because of it, often because of anonymous complaints.

That's what happened to Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fehrenbach. He's a highly decorated 20-year veteran of the Air Force, an F15 fighter pilot who's flown combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military started his discharge proceedings after he was outed in 2009, but his case was interrupted by the impending repeal of "don't ask, don't tell".

Lieutenant Colonel Fehrenbach has been with us before to talk about the impact of this policy on his life, so we wanted to check in with him again on this important day. And he's with us now from NPR's bureau in New York.

Lieutenant Colonel, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.

Colonel VICTOR FEHRENBACH: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: But I do understand that you have decided to retire.

FEHRENBACH: Yes, I have.

MARTIN: May I ask why?

FEHRENBACH: More than anything, it really isn't due to "don't ask, don't tell," although this was sort of a tumultuous three years. It's more just for personal reasons. Part of it, I guess, is "don't ask, don't tell," that, you know, for 17 of those years, 18 of those years, just living in the closet, you sort of sacrifice a lot. You sacrifice sort of personal relationships.

I mean, I'm proud of my service and, you know, I loved my service, but I think I'm ready to just move on for personal reasons and sort of start a new life.

MARTIN: What has the last couple of months been like for you? You were essentially in limbo. I mean, everyone knew that...

FEHRENBACH: Yes.

MARTIN: ...there was a discussion of repealing the policy, but it wasn't repealed and...

FEHRENBACH: Right.

MARTIN: So what has the last couple of months been like for you?

FEHRENBACH: Yeah. I've been in limbo for over two years now, really. My case started, actually, in May 2008, and then my final recommendation for discharge was in April 2009, so you know, after that, you know, I expected to be discharged about six months after that, but it's been in this limbo status. It's been delayed a couple times and then finally last August we filed a lawsuit and an injunction in federal court.

And after that, we knew, essentially, that it was blocked, but you know, it still was difficult to serve with that hanging over you the whole time. You know, just always wondering, is this my last day? Is my discharge going to be finalized? It did create a strain on me the last few years.

MARTIN: As I mentioned, you never intended to out yourself. You were, you know, outed by presumably someone - I don't know. Did you ever figure out why somebody...

FEHRENBACH: No.

MARTIN: ...outed you? Was it...

FEHRENBACH: No. I don't know what his motives were, but...

MARTIN: Was it somebody with whom you had a relationship? Somebody who was disgruntled or just somebody...

FEHRENBACH: Yeah. It was somebody that...

MARTIN: ...just being mean?

FEHRENBACH: ...basically was an acquaintance. I mean, I knew briefly, but you know - and there was actually some knowledge that he had done a similar thing before to someone else, so I'm not sure if he has...

MARTIN: Some vendetta against the military?

FEHRENBACH: Yeah. Against the military or something like that.

MARTIN: Do you think that the repeal of this policy will mean that no one else has to go through that or do you think that there are other cultural changes that still need to take place?

FEHRENBACH: Oh, there definitely are cultural changes that need to take place and a lot of those will take time because a lot of those have to do with just general acceptance and, again, that'll take time. And a lot of it will be, you know, other laws like DOMA will have to be repealed so that partners and spouses and things can get the same benefits that other couples in the military receive.

But you know, what today means to me - because I'm still on active duty today. I've got another 10 days to go before my retirement's official. So what it means to me and 65(ph) others currently in uniform today - it means they don't have to lie anymore. They don't have to hide. They don't have to look over their shoulder, constantly, you know, making up stories or wondering if they've slipped up.

And it sounds small, but it is a big deal. In fact, I got an email from a good friend of mine in the Navy this morning and it basically says, I love you, brother. It's truly an amazing day. It really was a new sense of pride putting on my uniform this morning and driving to work. It felt like a whole new life began. And that says it all and that's what makes it all worthwhile, that 65,000 service members today are putting on their uniforms with a new sense of pride that they can go serve with their integrity intact, and that's what this was all about.

MARTIN: Do you think about what your service might have been like had you not had to serve under this policy for all of these years?

FEHRENBACH: I do wonder, because as I mentioned before - and it was a long process for me, actually, even coming out to myself. The first 10 years of my service, you know, I still wasn't sure yet. You know, I fully planned on getting married and having children and having a white picket fence. So I think that possibly I would have come to terms with that earlier.

And as I mentioned before, it's such a strain that you sacrifice healthy personal relationships, you know, so that's one thing that I know that I made a sacrifice for and that's why, like I mentioned before, that I'm just ready to retire and move on.

MARTIN: Do you mind, though? You were alluding to this earlier what this day means to you. It sounds bittersweet.

FEHRENBACH: You know what? It is, but what was actually bittersweet is I had my retirement ceremony two weeks ago and, you know, while that was a great day, I had close family and friends there and actually Colonel Grethe Cammermeyer, who's a civil rights hero - you know, I think she started this battle for all of us over 20 years ago - she actually handed my retirement certificate to me. So that meant a lot to me and I was honored to have her there. It marked sort of a personal milestone, an end to my battle.

But that was bittersweet because this day meant more to me, because for me this fight was never about my career. It was really for those other 65,000 out there, and so this day means more to me than my retirement did and I'm happy that, you know, my retirement's not official for another 10 days, so I will be on active duty serving on leave, I'll be, but you know, I'll be able to serve sort of the last 10 days of my career without that burden.

MARTIN: And you use that figure, 65,000. Where does that come from?

FEHRENBACH: It's really just an estimate, and you know, I would believe that that number is higher because, you know, they're estimating because no one can talk about it until today, so...

MARTIN: You think that's the number of people who are, in fact, gay and lesbian who are serving...

FEHRENBACH: Yes.

MARTIN: ...in the military but can't reveal that fact under the - who could not under the...

FEHRENBACH: That's a lot of different...

MARTIN: ...policy.

FEHRENBACH: ...sources, best estimate.

MARTIN: You know, forgive me for asking, but I did have the opportunity to connect with - to hear a little bit about your retirement ceremony. I understand that it was a great day and Major Margaret Witt...

FEHRENBACH: Right.

MARTIN: ...who officiated said that his willingness to take on the Air Force, even though he was still in the military and had to deal with the day-to-day repercussions of that, it's a very lonely, unsettling journey. And so he has worn the uniform as the officer and pilot and human being that he is and said: Take me on.

When you look back on it, was it worth it?

FEHRENBACH: Absolutely. You know, this by far was the three hardest years of my life, but looking back at the battle and the journey that I've gone through and especially with my relationships with close friends and my family and then to see the result that I never expected to see, my retirement, and this day, absolutely worth it.

And strangely enough, I don't think I would change anything.

MARTIN: What's next for you?

FEHRENBACH: I'm not sure yet. I've got another 10 days till I'm officially unemployed, so I'll be looking for a job. I have a feeling it's probably going to be in the Washington, D.C. area, so maybe I'll get to see you in person...

MARTIN: I would like that. I would like that. And Lieutenant Colonel, thank you for your service. Thank you for your service all these years.

FEHRENBACH: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fehrenbach is, as we said, a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force for 10 more days and he was kind enough to join us from NPR's bureau in New York. Thank you so much.

FEHRENBACH: Thanks.

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