Openly Gay Army Lieutenant Challenges Military Ban

President Obama Wednesday called to eliminate the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which bans openly gay individuals from serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. Host Michel Martin gets reaction from West Point graduate and Army National Guard Lt. Dan Choi, who is openly gay and challenges the military's ban on gay service members.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we remember a leading voice in American history, who told the stories from the standpoint of those who were so often left out: scholar and activist Howard Zinn. He died yesterday. We'll tell you more about him in just a few minutes.

But first, for some, one element in President Obama's State of the Union speech that came as a bit of a surprise was his pledge to overturn the don't ask, don't tell policy that prohibits gay Americans from serving openly in the military.

President BARACK OBAMA: This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: While we don't have exact figures, it's estimated that more than 10,000 service members have been discharged under this policy, and many others have had their careers threatened since don't ask, don't tell was passed by Congress in 1993.

Daniel Choi is one of them. He graduated from West Point in 2003 as a specialist in Arabic language and environmental engineering. Choi achieved the rank of lieutenant. He served as an Army infantry officer in the Iraq War. He later transferred from active duty into the National Guard.

But his military career was put in jeopardy last March after he publicly disclosed his sexual orientation in an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. In June, a National Guard panel recommended that Choi be discharged. A final decision in his case is still pending.

He's now become a leading voice in calling for the end of don't ask, don't tell, and he joins us now from New York. Welcome. Welcome back.

Lieutenant DAN CHOI (Army National Guard): Good to be with you, Michel.

MARTIN: So did you know this was coming? Did your sources somehow indicate that this might be coming?

Lt. CHOI: Well, there were a lot of people that were tweeting about it, but I don't have an insider knowledge about anything that's going on in Washington. So I was pretty surprised when I heard it, and it was at a very exciting time in the speech when I was watching it with my boyfriend here in New York City.

MARTIN: And what was your reaction? Can you just tell me what that was like as you heard those words?

Lt. CHOI: It was very exciting, obviously, to know that our president, my commander-in-chief, has heard that, you know, while he's talking about all of the economy and the jobs, this whole year, since March, I felt so uncertain because my job, you know, my position in the military, is completely in jeopardy, and they haven't made a decision on that yet. So for him to say that, I think, was a big deal.

However, I'm still uncertain, and until I'm actually told that I don't have to lie anymore and I'm not going to be fired, there's still this uncertainty. So that's how I feel. Obviously, I feel very excited, optimistic, but I'm still uncertain.

MARTIN: You know, in response to the president's pledge, Arizona senator and former Navy pilot John McCain said it would be a mistake to repeal this policy. He said that don't ask, don't tell is, quote, "a successful policy."

In your experience - and I'm asking you to just give me your own assessment. Do you think that John McCain's opinion is the prevailing one in the military, or not?

Lt. CHOI: Well, I think that when you ask soldiers - you could ask my soldiers and the people that I've worked with. I still go into work, and I still, you know, perform my duties, and they are all so supportive of what I'm doing.

I think there's a huge disconnect with anybody from the outside who's saying that don't ask, don't tell is working. My soldiers say working for what? We're going to kick out an Arabic linguist? And we're going to deploy overseas and we're going to be weakened to the point that because somebody tells the truth, you're going to assume that we're all going crazy and that we're all uncomfortable?

It's so disconnected. I think there's - and some people would say, Michel, that there's this generation gap, that some people, because they're older, they come from a different era, and therefore they say these things. I don't think that's completely true. This has nothing to do with how old you are. It really is how keyed in on the reality you are. And I would say it's not a generation gap. It's an education gap.

MARTIN: Hmm.

Lt. CHOI: And real leaders who know the truth and those military leaders that are right there, they are keyed in on reality. They know that there are gay soldiers and the reality is in every single level.

In the military we realize that we need honest soldiers, people who aren't afraid to commit themselves to the values. And another thing was the part of repealing don't ask, don't tell was stated in a portion of the speech where he was talking about our values. And I think for me, because this was all just started on me refusing to lie - I didnt want to lie about who I am any more and I want to serve my country, and those are my values. I think America agrees with those, and for me, I just am waiting for the day when America can prove itself that these are our values and we're ready to act on them.

MARTIN: And speaking of the whole question of leadership, and I do not, I hope that my question does not offend, but there are many people who think that President Clinton essentially kind of tied up the first couple of months of his administration by focusing on this issue to the point of sort of overshadowing other national priorities that a lot of other people thought were more important. And there are a lot of people now who suggest that from a practical and political perspective, the recession, national security, health care, all things these are - if I may - more important to his agenda than this issue and that he can not afford the political capital that it would take to advance this issue. And to those who have that perspective, what do you say?

Lt. CHOI: I think that you have to really listen to what he said after - in the very last bit of his statement. He said its the right thing to do. He said, these are our values, these are what we believe in. And as a leader, when you prioritize anything above who we are as a people, I think that's when you really put all of us in jeopardy. And so I wonder - a lot of people who have those views that, you know, there's certain priorities, they're saying that, well, people can wait and the people who are in the military who are getting fired, its not their turn. So wait in line and get fired.

And I am hurt by that, because I have spent this year suffering because of what I believe in. And for them, I will tell them, political capital-wise, if youre making decisions based on that, if youre leading in order to get reelected, then youre not leading at all. And so for me, you can fire me. I will still be fighting for my values. I saw it right there as a call to action.

MARTIN: Dan Choi is a lieutenant in the Army National Guard. He's also a board member of Knights - that's Knights with a K - an organization of gay West Point graduates who advocate for the end of don't ask, don't tell and he joined us on the line from New York.

Lieutenant, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much for joining us.

Lt. CHOI: Thank you, Michel.

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