What DADT Repeal Will Mean For Service Members

Guests

Jonathan Mills, staff sergeant, U.S. Air Force
Chris Heath, correspondent, GQ Magazine
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network

With the end of the military's don't ask, don't tell policy on Tuesday, openly gay men and women began to apply for service or reinstatement. Those already in uniform could, for the first time, choose to speak openly without fear of being discharged.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. At 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, the 18-year era of "don't ask, don't tell" was officially over. Servicemen and -women across the country and around the world can now be open about their sexuality.

If you're in uniform or used to be, how did the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" affect you? Call and tell us your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, should U.S. troops stay in Iraq? We'll talk with Meghan O'Sullivan and her argument that strategic benefits could flow, but the United States needs to keep 10,000 men in Iraq.

But first, "don't ask, don't tell," moving forward after the repeal. GQ correspondent Chris Heath interviewed several former and current gay servicemen about their experiences in a piece for the September issue of the magazine, "Tell: An Intimate History of Gay Men in the Military," and he joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you with us today.

CHRIS HEATH: Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: And it's interesting, at the end of the piece, you quote two airmen. Of course, they're not identified in your piece, which came out before the policy ended. But Air Force Numbers One and Two, and they say: What I'm most looking forward to is when nothing happens. So what have you heard? What's been happening?

HEATH: I haven't been speaking to people, but I haven't heard - from what I'm reading in the media, I think as a lot of people expect, you know, the history in other countries where this kind of change has happened has been that people have built up to a big - you know, people are scared beforehand that there was going to be some huge repercussion, and there's been none at all.

CONAN: Well, let's find out from at least one gay serviceman. This is Jonathan Mills, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, based here in Washington, with us now on the phone. Nice to have you with us today.

Staff Sergeant JONATHAN MILLS: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And what's changed since Tuesday?

MILLS: To be honest, absolutely nothing, nothing on the outward, nothing, you know, that you can tell. I'm just going about my job day to day.

CONAN: And I know everybody had decisions to make: What do you do when you can finally be open? Do you suddenly drop the balloons and tell everybody, or do you just keep quiet about it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MILLS: You know, I really did not know what to do when I woke up on Tuesday morning. You know, I felt an extreme sense of relief, you know, not having to continue to worry and live under that stress.

But it was - having to live under that was so extreme that when I woke up and realized I didn't have to, you know, I did not know what to do with that. Since then, you know, the only way I can describe it is, you know, an extreme sense of relief from not having to lie if anyone, you know, ever approaches me and asks me, or if I'm ever put in that situation again.

But, you know, truly the - you know, the big change I thought would be on Tuesday, you know, there has that - we've all just been going on our job, you know, same as before.

CONAN: Same as before, and as far as you know, nobody's been panicked, nobody's been - the world has not come to an end?

MILLS: Absolutely not, absolutely not.

CONAN: I wonder, as you move forward now, have you told anybody?

MILLS: I have - well, I've written a couple of articles, and then several of my former co-workers and bosses have contacted me, you know, just to express their support and, you know, express their congratulations. But as far as, you know, me coming out and telling any of my current co-workers or my boss or anything, you know, no I haven't.

You know, I just haven't been put in that situation, and I think a lot of other gay service members will probably, you know, have the same opinion. You know, unless we're directly approached or put in a situation, you know, we're just going to go about our business and, you know, keep that, you know, to ourselves.

CONAN: A lot of people - for a lot of people that I've heard, and including some in Chris Heath's article, one issue that seemed to be important was the ability to put their boyfriend or girlfriend's picture on their desk.

MILLS: Absolutely, that is something that was very important to me, actually, and something that I've heard. You know, some of my friends say, you know, they're looking forward to the day when they can do that.

You know, a lot of places where we work, our co-workers will come in with things like that, you know, photos on their desks. They'll be able to talk about, you know, their weekends. And I've always kind of been jealous about them being able to do that and me not being able to share that with them like they're able to share with me.

So we are definitely looking forward to, you know, being able to just be open about that like we were not before.

CONAN: Well, good luck to you, and we wish you the best.

MILLS: Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: Jonathan Mills is a staff sergeant with the U.S. Air Force. He called us from his office here in Washington, D.C. And again, if you're in uniform or used to be, how has the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" affected you? 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org.

And Chris Heath, we have to remember that whatever the reaction is, it follows not just this 18-year era of "don't ask, don't tell" but a long history. I was fascinated in your piece that you went back and talked to gay men who served in the Army and various other services back in World War II, in Korea and in Vietnam.

HEATH: Absolutely, and, you know, I mean, it's gone back as far as the military goes back. But I went back as far as there were basically people who could tell me the story of what their experiences were like.

And I think one of the great opportunities of doing the article when we did it was that any article we would have done before now would have had to be, I think personally, a kind of campaigning article to, you know, point out the injustice of what's been happening. But now, it was a great time to just say OK, we can go back 70 years and just talk to people and say what's this experience been like in all the different ways.

CONAN: In all the different ways. And clearly it was worse for gay men and women before "don't ask, don't tell," but there was a peculiar aspect of that policy, which punished those who were gay and protected those who were bigoted.

HEATH: Absolutely. You know, if the policy worked completely as it was supposed to, then I think it was still problematic. But obviously one of the really pernicious things of a policy that relies on silence is that if the other people around you don't respect that, then they can put you in incredibly awkward situations, and you can't speak out against those situations because you're required to be silent to keep your job.

CONAN: You can be blackmailed, effectively.

HEATH: Absolutely.

CONAN: We want to hear stories of the callers and our emailers, and let's begin with - this is Chris(ph), another Chris, this one calling from Durham in North Carolina.

CHRIS: Hey, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

CHRIS: Great. This is an interesting topic. I was just thinking about this. I'm a newly commissioned Army officer. I was prior enlisted. And so before, my feelings on the matter didn't matter. You know, I couldn't - I could choose not to weigh in if I found some remarks offensive, you know.

However, now that I'm given a position of leadership, you know, be it, you know, middle management, middle management in the Army, I guess I now have to find avenues for soldiers that do have - that do take issue with the repeal, avenues for them to voice their concerns in a healthy way and to kind of find a piece of themselves and realize at the end of the day it's mission first and everything else is second.

So I guess any other callers or speakers that have experience with soldiers or airmen or Marines or seamen that take issue with this, I guess how they dealt with it would be interesting to know.

CONAN: Interesting - did you get any training on how this policy is going to play out?

CHRIS: Yes, we did. There was a trainer, and then the actual training itself of "don't ask, don't tell" and the repeal - I'm sorry, I'm pulling off to the side of the road so I can speak.

CONAN: Oh, good. We don't want our new second lieutenants to be in wrecks on the highway.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHRIS: I appreciate that. Yes, there was training. And, you know, it was very cut and dry. There are programs out there, and there's clergy and things that people can speak with if they take offense, you know, because of religious beliefs or to even figure out why they take issue with the fact that the person serving with them, you know, is in a same-sex relationship.

CONAN: And was there training, though, on the point you just mentioned? What do you do about that?

CHRIS: Oh, there was. It was a seminar-style class of this is what you do. But there was no kind of - so far, there haven't been any real-life applications. So I guess I'm curious to know if anybody out there has actually, you know, dealt with this.

But it's funny because I'm actually getting ready to go in front of my unit here in about a week or so. And the unit I serve with, I can see this becoming - taking on a humorous tone, and that's just not acceptable. I mean, because if you do the figuring, at least one person in that unit is in a same-sex relationship. So if they're still hiding, then - or if they feel uncomfortable, then that's an unsafe work environment, and that's just not what you want to create.

CONAN: Chris, good luck to you. Thank you very much for the call.

CHRIS: Thank you, sir.

CONAN: And drive carefully.

CHRIS: Yeah, will do.

CONAN: To find out more about what's going to be happening now and on out from here, joining us now is Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. He's with us here in Studio 3A. Nice of you to be with us.

AUBREY SARVIS: Good to be here. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And at least that second lieutenant was trained. Has everybody been trained?

SARVIS: By and large, I believe over 95 percent of the force has received education and training on what repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" means. And this really comes down to leadership, as you just heard from the new second lieutenant. It also comes down to respect, mutual respect for each other.

This is day two of the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Our military is still standing. If anything, it's stronger for having made this change, and a very fundamental key here is that in fact the military - Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs, then Secretary Rob Gates and now Secretary Leon Panetta, they have certified to the Congress that they were ready for this change.

CONAN: And that it would not affect readiness.

SARVIS: It would not. They certified to a number of key factors. In essence, the military was ready to make this change. What Congress did, Congress passed a repeal process bill. It left it up to the senior military to make the determination if there should be a certification that the services were ready. In fact, that certification I just referred to was made.

And that was part, I believe, of the strategy of President Obama, was to get buy-in from his senior military leadership before this took place. It was that certification that made the "don't ask, don't tell" statute go away. And all of this is a preamble to come back to the young lieutenant.

The senior military has spoken. Whether you're a sailor or an airman or a Marine, you follow orders. This is not something that is elective. Gay and lesbian service members are now officially welcomed in the ranks, and they are a part of our armed forces.

CONAN: "Don't ask, don't tell" is done. If you're in uniform or used to be, how did the repeal affect you? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the U.S. military, and you might be confused by different numbers being reported, that just over 11,000 troops were discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" or that more than 14,000 were discharged.

The truth is nobody really knows. According to a Pentagon spokesperson, the Department of Defense had no reliable system in place to track discharges under the policy until 1997, some three years after it took effect.

What we do know, again from the DOD, is that from 1997 to 2010, there were 11,185 validated DADT discharges. If you were among them, or if you continue to serve under the policy, how did the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" affect you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are GQ correspondent Chris Heath, who interviewed several former and current gay servicemen about their experiences in a piece for the September issue of the magazine. You can find a link to that article, "Tell: An Intimate History of Gay Men in the Military," at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Also with us is Aubrey Sarvis, executive director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Chris Heath, I wanted you to tell us the story told to you by the man you identify as Marine One who works at the White House.

HEATH: That's correct, yes. He works at official events, occasionally at the White House, because he's a Marine located nearby, and he found himself in - everyone had gone away to find the vice president, and he found himself in the Blue Room with the president.

And so he just decided to go up and speak to the president and thank him. And he said, you know, sir, I want to let you know that there a number of us that work very close to you who appreciate very much what you're doing on "don't ask, don't tell," more than you probably realize.

And he says the president realized what he was saying and thanked him and thanked him for his service.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Ross(ph), Ross with us from Fort Richardson in Alaska.

ROSS: Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi.

ROSS: I remember in 2007, there was a survey done of the service members of how would they feel, how would they react to the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." And I don't believe any of them - like most, the majority of, like, infantry or the hard MOSs, they were surveyed, and none of the data that was collected was ever published of the views that were expressed in these surveys.

So I feel like maybe the "don't ask, don't tell," the repeal was pushed by higher-ups.

CONAN: And do you feel resentful?

ROSS: No. I mean, I'm going to follow orders. I mean, I may not like the lifestyle, but I do love the U.S. Constitution. So I'm going to do what I'm supposed to. But the whole system seems like it was like a publicity - not publicity but a tactic from - to get - an election tactic or something because there's still the Defense of Marriage Act, which doesn't allow gay people to receive the benefits from the military.

But like I said, I just feel it was just pushed.

CONAN: I wonder, Aubrey Sarvis, can you tell us - I know that there were various surveys chosen, and at least in some, I do remember hearing that people in combat units were less supportive than others.

SARVIS: I'd like to respond to your caller. The 2007 survey that he's referring to, I am not familiar with it. There is only one official Department of Defense survey that was taken, and that was taken by an outside contractor for the Defense Department. Nearly a half-a-million service members from all of the branches were surveyed, including - there was an opportunity established for gay and lesbian service members to respond.

This survey was reported, the results, back to Capitol Hill by all of the service chiefs, including the chairman of the joint chiefs. The survey that I think the caller is referring to indicated that over 80 percent of active-duty service members and reservists and Guard members were ready for this change.

It is true, as the caller alluded to, that there was less support in some MOSs, military occupational skills, and less support in some remote areas. But I think the big message here is that this was a comprehensive outreach.

The chairman of the joint chiefs, the general counsel of the Department of Defense, General Carter Ham, went to over 25 military installations around the country and engaged thousands of service members in a dialogue.

But again, the reality is it was the senior military leadership that in effect made this change. Congress only passed a process bill that allowed that change to be made. So I would say to the young caller yes, it is time to salute. I admire your response that you follow orders, that you're proud to be in the armed forces and that you can have your personal reviews and your personal reservations, but they are personal.

The official policy of our armed forces is to welcome gay and lesbians.

CONAN: Ross, have you noticed any change there at Fort Richardson since Tuesday?

ROSS: Oh, negative. It was - we just had some policy letters put out, and it just came very quietly, stealthily, I mean, no change. Nobody's walking outside partying or anything. But it was pretty stealthy and went pretty smoothly.

CONAN: All right, well thanks very much.

ROSS: I just - one thing I just...

CONAN: Go ahead.

ROSS: Just like the hard - he said the soft MO - I'm talking like infantry, the hard guys that actually go fighting, I don't know if there's...

CONAN: And the Marine Corps in particular, yes.

ROSS: Yeah, there's not going to be any like repercussions of hazing or harassment or anything like that because I can see that happening in the future.

SARVIS: Well, actually, with respect to harassment, Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs, and all of the other chiefs have made it clear there will be zero tolerance for any harassment whatsoever. And I would also say to you that this change is one that will be, I believe, implemented effectively and smoothly. It's not going to be a big deal.

CONAN: Ross, thanks very much for the call. And I wanted to ask you, Chris Heath, it was interesting reading your piece, the variety of experiences that people had, a lot of them said hey, in our unit, it was no big deal. Others said wait a minute, we got treated very, very badly.

HEATH: I know, and actually that ran all the way back to the Second World War, and it was one of the most striking things speaking to people was that - you know, but I think that's the nature of rules that are rules that have prejudice involved with them, that they're applied in incredibly arbitrary ways, and sometimes, you know, sometimes people had very unproblematic journeys through their service, and sometimes people had awfully problematic journeys.

CONAN: Let's go next to Alan(ph), Alan with us from Wilmington, North Carolina.

ALAN: Thank you for having me. I served in combat with Second Marine Division in Desert Storm, and I think that this (unintelligible) got out in '92 before the policy of "don't ask, don't tell" was even implemented. You know, it was - you were gone if they found out anything, and they did ask questions.

But I think it's a great thing. You know, I don't really care in combat who your boyfriend or girlfriend is or where you're from. As long as you've got my back, and I've got yours, and we help each other out and accomplish the mission, then that's what, you know, comes first.

I mean, you know, I served with guys that weren't even American citizens, from Mexico, you know. We shouldn't be saying oh, whoa, wait a minute, they're from another country, and they're not Americans, they shouldn't serve. And I think it's idiotic to spend tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars to train individuals, especially pilots and that kind of stuff, and then find out that they're gay and get rid of them.

I mean, they're saving guys' lives on the ground. As long as they're there for air support when we need them, I mean, that's what it's all about. Who cares whether you're gay or not?

CONAN: Alan, thanks very much, appreciate it.

ALAN: Thank you for your time.

CONAN: Email from Patty(ph) in Oberlin in Ohio: Now that "don't ask, don't tell" has been repealed, would a soldier be required to declare their sexuality? Can any soldier still keep their preference to his or her self? I would assume it would be the latter.

SARVIS: Absolutely, and this is the important thing her: A service member can elect to speak to his or her sexual orientation. There is no requirement to do so whatsoever. But if she does, if he does, there will be no penalty. No longer will that service member be afraid that I will lose my job if I am honest about who I am.

This is very much an individual choice.

CONAN: Let's go next to Mike(ph), and Mike's with us from Cleveland.

MIKE: Hi, Neal. I take a late lunch to listen to your program. It's always really good.

CONAN: Thank you.

MIKE: Let me just say this: I've been out for 40 years, and it's a long time. And I'm - I think this policy is so overdue. I always thought "don't ask, don't tell" was a cowardly thing to do. But in any event, just remember, I worked in a stockade, and I remember at the time, and I think now, that the military is run by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And there's a particular article that you could be penalized for homosexuality. And I've heard that, you know, they're allowing people now to petition to get their discharges upgraded.

How do you compensate a person who went to the stockade or the brig for homosexuality? I mean, how do you do that? I don't - I remember one kid in particular, when I was in Vietnam, that was a young kid - he had no business being in the stockade, and yet he was prosecuted for it.

CONAN: I wonder again, Aubrey Sarvis of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network?

SARVIS: Well, unfortunately, we can't make everyone whole again. We can't right all the wrong that was done, not only under "don't ask, don't tell" but other prior regulations that the caller is referring to. He's absolutely right. Prior to "don't ask, don't tell," homosexuals were prohibited, by regulation, from serving in the Armed Forces. And if there was an investigation - and there were many - of service members who were gay or lesbian, it was a criminal investigation.

And in far too many cases, some of those individuals were convicted. They did do time in stockades. They all received undesirable or general discharges. One of the few improvements under "don't ask, don't tell" is the 14,000-plus who were discharged received honorable discharges. But, they all have on their DD214 - that's the discharge paper - homosexuality or an RE4 code, which means you're not eligible to come back in the Armed Forces. At SLDN, we will be working with the Pentagon to remove the homosexual characterization on the paperwork and to remove that code.

That's important because that paper forces a lot of young sailors and Airmen and Marines to go and out themselves again to a future employer. And many employers will not hire you if you have that RE4 code, because that means you're not eligible to go back into the Armed Forces so...

MIKE: But it also mean that you can't take advantage of medical benefits from the VA.

SARVIS: Absolutely. It - that code can preclude your receiving medical services from the VA and to get your G.I. educational benefit. So this is very important, what I call, cleanup work. But no. We can't make everyone whole again. But some measure of integrity and dignity and recognition has been restored for those service members who were treated unfairly.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much for the call.

MIKE: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: We're talking about the new era, now that "don't ask, don't tell" is over. Our guests are Chris Heath, a correspondent for GQ magazine. "Tell: An Intimate History of Gay Men in the Military" is featured in that magazine's September issue. Also with us, Aubrey Sarvis, executive director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Ed. And Ed is calling from Tampa.

ED: Yes. Good afternoon. And thank you for the show. The reason - the point that I wanted to make is right along the same lines of what Aubrey was just talking about. They cannot make everyone whole. My situation, for example, is I'm a 17-year veteran, and there was nothing put in place with the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" to actually take things on a case-by-case basis and right the wrongs that were made. Basically, they're saying you can apply to get in. And if there's a position, they may consider you. But 17 years and with three years left to retirement and no redress whatsoever, is kind of a shortcoming of the repeal implementation.

CONAN: So you're not being helped, you don't think, enough to re-enlist.

ED: Not at all. I think that the military should have set up a board or something to look at issues on a case-by-case basis, where people had very short time left prior to their retirement and address those separately. Not necessarily just saying that you can come in because a lot of people are passed the age where they could retire and they have every intention of retiring were it not for the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

CONAN: Aubrey Sarvis, part of the cleanup work.

SARVIS: This is true. Unfortunately, to go back in, a veteran will have to meet the current requirements, and some service members, like the caller, may well be too old. They'll have to meet the current physical requirements. They will also have to have an occupational skill that the services need. But we are working with service members who meet all of those requirements. There are two categories reinstatement: I want my old job back, I meet all the requirements.

We may well have an announcement this week on some service members who will go back in on reinstatement cases. At SLDN, we're litigating for that. We hope to settle this with the Defense Department and the Justice Department without a trial. So that's one category. There's another category of service members who don't want to be reinstated. They want to go back in the Reserves and complete five or 10 years, so they can wear the uniform again, serve their country again, and have 20 or 30 years of service. But, unfortunately, there are some service members who will not qualify for either route.

CONAN: Now, what happens - and, Ed, thank you for the call. Good luck. We just have a minute left. But what happens with spouses of gay and lesbian service members? Obviously, there's still the Defense of Marriage Act.

SARVIS: They will - today, gay and lesbian service members are serving, but those who are legally married are not receiving the same benefits as their straight legally married counterparts. It's not only DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, it's the definition of spouse in Title 10 of the U.S. Code. So we will have to work with the Pentagon and with Capitol Hill to address both of those. But it's important that we have equal benefits for equal sacrifice and equal service.

CONAN: Aubrey Sarvis, thank you very much for your time today.

SARVIS: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Aubrey Sarvis, executive director for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. And I'd like to thank Chris Heath for being with us today, a correspondent for GQ magazine, with us there from NPR West. Thanks very much for your history of gay men in the military.

HEATH: My pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: And that, of course, in the September issue of GQ magazine. Up next, an argument that the U.S. must stay in Iraq and that the benefits would more than justify an ongoing military presence there. Former Deputy National Security Adviser Meghan O'Sullivan joins us to lay out what those benefits might be. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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