In The Line Of Duty Or Discrimination?

The U.S. House has voted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the policy that bans gay and lesbian people from serving in the military. The Senate is expected to take up the issue later this year and a military-wide study is underway to assess the effects of lifting the 17-year-old ban. In the meantime, the ban is still in effect and two service members share their stories about living and working under the policy. Lt. Colonel Victor Fehrenbach, a decorated Iraq war veteran under investigation for possibly violating the policy, is asking a federal court to block what he believes is his looming discharge. He says his sexual orientation is irrelevant in the battlefield. Fehrenbach’s lawyer, Andrew Woodmansee, explains the premise of the case. And Katherine Miller, a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, discusses her life on the West Point campus and her decision to out herself and resign last week.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

On the program today, family life in the 21st century. As you may be seeing this summer in three separate Hollywood films, sometimes includes families formed with help from a sperm donor. In our Behind Closed Doors conversation, we'll talk about how that experience is lived in real life. At least how it's been lived by our guests.

But first, another modern struggle: The battle over the rights of gays and lesbians. Today we want to talk more about the debate over whether gays and lesbians can serve openly in the military. In 1993, the policy called Don't Ask Don't Tell first went into effect. It continues to be enforced even though the president and other high ranking civilian and military leaders now say they support a repeal.

Indeed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reminded service members earlier this year that the policy remains enforced.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Defense Department): While this process plays out over time, nothing will change in terms of our current policies and practices. Current law, policies and regulations remain in place and we are obligated to abide by them as before.

MARTIN: So that means that gay service members continue to face expulsion from the service for disclosing their sexual orientation or having it disclosed by third parties. Today, we talked with two people facing separation from the service under the policy. They have very different stories to tell.

Here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios is Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fehrenbach. He's flown almost 90 combat missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo in his 19 years in the Air Force. But he's been assigned to office duty in Idaho since 2008, pending an investigation of whether he violated Don't Ask Don't Tell. He joins me with his attorney Drew Woodmansee. He's also here in the studio with us.

And on her cell phone from the United States Military Academy at West Point, Katherine Miller. She's a cadet who resigned last week and she must remain on campus as her request is being processed. I welcome you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Lieutenant Colonel VICTOR FEHRENBACH (U.S. Air Force): Good to be here.

Mr. DREW WOODMANSEE (Attorney): Good to be here. Thanks for having us, Michel.

Ms. KATHERINE MILLER (Cadet): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Lieutenant Colonel, I'm going to start with you. Can I just ask why you decided to join the service to begin with?

Lt. Col. FEHRENBACH: My parents were both in the Air Force. I was born in an Air Force base, grew up on an Air Force base my whole life and so it's just always been a part of me. And, obviously, my parents sort of instilled that sense of service in me. It wasn't really until I got to Notre Dame where I went to college, where I felt more strongly about the calling.

Between my freshman and sophomore year, I heard a speech that Senator John McCain made. And he talked about his time as a POW in Vietnam. And after I heard that speech, it just moved me. It changed my life, actually, because my first year in ROTC, I actually didn't enjoy it that much. So I thought about dropping out of the ROTC program. But after I heard that speech, I thought that I owed John McCain and those that served with him a debt. And the least I could do was give four, eight, 10 years of my life to serve my country in the military.

So I went back with sort of a renewed sense of service and just dedicated myself to it. And I thought, well, I'll stay as long as I enjoy it, as long as I want to continue to serve. I'll stay as long as they'll let me.

MARTIN: And how long have you been in?

Lt. Col. FEHRENBACH: Nineteen years.

MARTIN: Nineteen years now, logged some 88 combat hours cannot don't have time to list all those medals and commendations on your record. Why then did the military begin investigating you in May 2008?

Lt. Col. FEHRENBACH: Mm-hmm. A civilian in Boise, where I live, which is about 45 minutes from the base, he outed me to the Air Force. So it wasn't by, you know, I never intended to do this. I've been serving for 17 years at the time. I had always kept my private life private. I never expected that Don't Ask Don't Tell would affect me. I just, you know, thought I could continue to serve under it and, like I said, I never expected any of this.

MARTIN: And this is a question I want to ask Drew. Was it is the policy intended to allow third parties to out an individual?

Mr. WOODMANSEE: Well, it's an important question because the new guidelines that Secretary Gates endorsed and promulgated back in March are really geared toward a more humane approach to this policy and this law. And the policy now, as it stands with the new regulations are really more strict in terms of what is credible information, and special scrutiny to third parties have a desire to harm the service member. And so, in particular with Colonel Fehrenbach's case, that individual clearly had an intent to harm him and had a history of false reporting.

So there is the possibility for third parties to out someone, but there is special scrutiny that should be given to these cases when a third party comes forward (unintelligible).

MARTIN: So, just to be clear, colonel, you thought you could live with the policy.

Lt. Col. FEHRENBACH: I did.

MARTIN: You did live with the policy. You had no intention of...

Lt. Col. FEHRENBACH: Absolutely.

MARTIN: You were aware of your sexual orientation.

Lt. Col. FEHRENBACH: I would say I wasn't at the beginning. There were probably years and I think everybody goes through this where you're just, you're not sure. You kind of feel a certain way, but you think, I actually thought, oh, I'm going to get married when I'm 28, probably have kids when I'm 30 and just move on. But I think it takes a period of years where, you know, you start to realize.

Mr. WOODMANSEE: And I need to interject here because it's important. This case that the colonel is being investigated under and being discharged for is a case about conduct, not a statement. He's never acknowledged any sexual orientation of any sort one way or the other publicly. And this case is geared toward a specific single act with a third party, not any statement he's made acknowledging any sexual orientation. That's important to note.

MARTIN: But it is important to note. And that actually brings me to Katherine's story. Katherine, let me just start with asking you the same question: Why did you decide to serve in the military and why did you want to go to West Point?

Ms. MILLER: I discovered West Point my junior year of high school, and I was immediate drawn to the holistic development that goes into each cadet not only, you know, at a regular college, you develop yourself academically. But I was drawn to the fact that West Point makes a deliberate effort to develop cadets also physically and militarily to develop leaders.

And I was really drawn to that holistic development and the evolution of leaders throughout that process. And I really want to devote my life to a cause bigger than myself, helping others. And the military was just the perfect fit just for that.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask, did you feel you had an understanding of your sexual orientation at the point at which you enrolled in the academy? Or was that an understanding that came later?

Ms. MILLER: I was comfortable with my sexuality, also around the same time I was discovering West Point. So it was the beginning of the process where I was becoming more open with it as part of who I am.

MARTIN: So you just figured you would deal with it in the same way that the colonel has you would just what? You just would not disclose your orientation. You just you wouldn't ask, you wouldn't tell. Was that pretty much your thought about it?

Ms. MILLER: Absolutely. I planned on returning to the closet. However, that ended being a much more difficult task than I had anticipated. It had taken a greater on me socially, mentally and emotionally than I had ever anticipated.

MARTIN: In fact, I want to read a little bit from your resignation letter because this is, I think the point that we want to get to.

You said that, I'm quoting now, "I've created a heterosexual dating history to recite to fellow cadets when they inquire. I have endured unwanted approaches by male cadets for fear of being accused as a lesbian by rejecting or reporting these events. And I've been coerced into ignoring derogatory comments toward homosexuals for fear of being alienated for my viewpoint. In short, I've lied to my classmates and compromised my integrity and my identity by adhering to existing military policy."

Can you just talk a little bit about that? Would you just give me a sense of having to rebuff or having to address this whole question of advances in order to protect yourself. Talk a little bit about that if you would.

Ms. MILLER: Okay. So, cadet life is we're all students together, but we also go through military training. We go through pretty much everything together. So we have professional relationships within our cadet chain of command, but we also have our social relationships. And during our initial inculcation period as a cadet, it's called cadet basic training, I remember the topic of one's romantic life and personal life eventually surfaces.

And I distinctly remember nicknaming my previous girlfriend, whose name is Kristen, I referred to her as Chris. And I changed all the pronouns I used from she to he. And immediately I started developing lies and I started covering them up with stories that may or may not have happened. And just right off the bat, I was being dishonest with my friends and my fellow cadets.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about Don't Ask Don't Tell. That's the policy that bars gay and lesbian persons from serving openly in the military. I'm joined by two people who are facing discharge under the policy. West Point Cadet Katherine Miller. She's recently resigned. And Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fehrenbach, who is a decorated combat veteran who's fighting discharge under the policy. We're also joined by Lieutenant Colonel Fehrenbach's attorney.

On the question of enduring unwanted approaches by male cadets for fear of being accused as a lesbian, I'm wondering if women who are not gay feel that they have to do that. Katherine?

Ms. MILLER: I think the West Point and the military has made a deliberate effort to address sexual harassment. It's been a problem in the past. However, the military is definitely addressing this. However, under the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, though, it was intended to be this way. Lesbian cadets like myself are forced into an odd situation where, one, we're lying, but then also I feel defenseless against these sort of situations that happen.

MARTIN: What was the point at which you felt you had to resign?

Ms. MILLER: I remember sitting in on a professional military ethics class, which is run by cadets and it's meant to be an open discussion sort of experience. And somehow we got on the topic of gays in the military. So my classmates and I were talking about it. And I remember a minority of cadets that were very opinionated, that they did not believe homosexuality was morally right and that gays had no place in the military.

I remember these derogatory comments being made in these really inhumane terms. And I know the comments weren't directed directly toward me, but I took them that way that here were my friends, here were my classmates slandering homosexuality and I was speechless and slightly traumatized by the entire experience. And I knew that I wouldn't be able to serve in the military in which I felt so violated like that.

MARTIN: The question I have for you, Katherine, and it's a difficult one and I apologize. But you sound like you're a very brave, young woman, I feel like you can address this question is there are those who would argue that this is very little different from not liking it. I mean, that there are other people who present themselves for military service and they just don't like it, you know, for whatever reason.

To those who feel that this is something that you need to know about yourself before you enter the service - that the policy's been in place, that's the deal. For those who feel that way, what would you say?

Ms. MILLER: I would say my number one priority coming out of high school was to go to West Point. That was my dream. That was the be all end all for me. And I wasn't about to sacrifice that for a personal aspect of my life, that being my sexuality. But like I said before, I completely underestimated the challenges I would end up facing. And ultimately I feel like it's detrimentally affected my professional growth.

I've committed myself to developing academically, physically and militarily. However, I don't feel like I've grown as a person since I've been here. This is something that needs to surface and I can't suppress that any longer.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back, we'll hear more about the effects of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy for these two service members with whom we've been speaking. And I should mention that later this week, we will hear a different perspective on the policy.

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Please stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, how the old 1960s TV series, "The Green Hornet" inspired a future martial arts instructor who is now inspiring other youth.

But first, we want to continue our discussion about Don't Ask Don't Tell. That's the policy that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. military. The White House, Pentagon and member of Congress are moving toward repeal, but the policy remains enforced. A military-wide study on the expected impact of repeal is expected December 1st. Four hundred thousand military surveys were due back yesterday on the policy.

We have been joined by two people with very different stories about life in the military under Don't Ask Don't Tell. And I do want to emphasize again that we will have additional perspectives later in the week. But, today, we are speaking with Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fehrenbach. He's a decorated Iraq War vet. The military is currently investigating whether he is in violation of the policy in his 19th year in the service. His lawyer, Drew Woodmansee is also here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

And with us on the phone from the United States Military Academy at West Point is Katherine Miller. She is a cadet. We've been told she's ranked number nine in her class, but she resigned last week.

Before the break, Katherine was telling us that she believed that serving in the military would improve her character. She was attracted to the total education, as she put it. But she said she had to lie about her sexual orientation and that goal was lost.

Now, colonel, I want to ask you, you heard Katherine Miller say she felt that this was an ongoing challenge to her integrity. And I wanted to ask you if you ever felt that way.

Lt. Col. FEHRENBACH: Yeah, I think we all do. I mean you're basically, like I said, is I kept my military life and personal life private. So I think even though I dealt with it for 17 years, it was difficult. I think I sacrificed a lot, like Katherine mentioned. You sacrifice personal development. You sacrifice personal relationships.

MARTIN: You can't be authentic with people and your friends and really talk about what's going on in your life.

Lt. Col. FEHRENBACH: Absolutely. I mean these are people, you know, I've been in combat deployment six times and these are people you live with in a tent, you know, and you go to war with. You need to trust implicitly. You need to know that they have your back. And you just can't even be upfront and honest. And that's a big sacrifice that I think people don't understand.

MARTIN: And the other question I'd have for you, colonel, is there are those who say this is just incompatible a same sex attraction is just incompatible with military service in part because of the living conditions. And what do you say to that?

Lt. Col. FEHRENBACH: I mean from this is from experience. This isn't hypothetical. When I've deployed, you don't think about those things, you know. You think about combat. You think about staying alive. You think about doing your next mission. You think about where you're going to get your next meal, how you're going to get sleep. You think about your family back home. No one's thinking about who they're showering next to.

So those questions in the survey and this wasn't coming from me these were from some of my straight coworkers. They were taking the survey basically laughing at it saying, why does this matter? Who cares? These aren't things you talk about in combat.

MARTIN: I just need to clarify the survey is that there is currently a survey being conducted of what? There are 400,000 active duty service members...

Lt. Col. FEHRENBACH: Right, 400,000, correct.

MARTIN: And the questions are what? Can you deal with the change in the policy?

Lt. Col. FEHRENBACH: Yeah. If a same sex couple were to live in base housing next to you, how would that make you feel? Uncomfortable? Well, you know what? There's you do uncomfortable things in the military. You sleep on the ground sometimes. You sleep in a cave. I was shot at eight times over Baghdad in one mission. That's a little uncomfortable.

We are dedicated. We are professional. We want to do the mission. We want to serve our country.

MARTIN: How do you think the survey is going to come out?

Lt. Col. FEHRENBACH: I think it's going to be surprisingly good in our favor. I think that they developed this survey and I think they're going to expect to see a lot of prejudice and bigotry. I think we'll see that and that's normal because that's a reflection of America's society right now.

But I think they're going to be surprised because the people I work with, you know, I went on national TV last year on the "Rachel Maddow Show" and I came back to work that next day and I got nothing but positive comments from everyone that I work with. So I know firsthand how this survey's going to come out.

MARTIN: Katherine, what about you? Since you I don't know if your classmates know that you've resigned and that or how many of them know, and I just would like to ask what reaction have you gotten since then. And how do you think the survey what the survey results will be?

Ms. MILLER: Actually, I've experienced a similar situation, where I've received overwhelming support. My classmates are full aware that I'm resigning and my reasons for resigning. And I've gotten Facebook messages just saying how much they support me. I've gotten emails and phone calls just saying that they stand behind me and that they think this policy is wrong. So, overwhelmingly the response has been positive, and that's encouraging. It really is.

MARTIN: And, Drew, let me just get a final thought from you here. I would like to know what's the next step in Colonel Fehrenbach's case here. And I just do want to clarify that the circumstances under which he was outed are supposed to be prohibited by the standards set in place by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. So why is this continuing?

Mr. WOODMANSEE: That is the great mystery here, and especially in light of this man's extraordinary service record and he's been sent in as a hero by the Air Force that's trying to discharge him. And you're correct, absolutely correct that under the new policy, under the new guidelines as promulgated by the secretary, this should be a done deal. This should be over. The man who outed him had a history of false reporting.

He was determined to be, quote, "not credible" by the Boise Police Department. And the Air Force knew he had a history of doing this, false reporting against individuals.

MARTIN: So you don't know why this is proceeding.

Mr. WOODMANSEE: I can only imagine there's politics involved at some level. But as a matter of law, this is why we turn to the courts, because we were looking at this from the politics of it and watching it kind of the train leave the station in the Air Force. And we had no choice but to go to the court, to go to the Article III courts that stand to protect individuals and say, you need to stop this because it's clearly going to harm him imminently.

MARTIN: What do you think the motivation of this person was? Is this a person who wants to out service members? Is that basically his agenda is that he...

Lt. Col. FEHRENBACH: I can tell you, I was told, you know, when I was being investigated that he had been involved in another Don't Ask Don't Tell case on base. And that he had made similar false accusations. So they knew about him. And they still went forward with it.

MARTIN: Colonel, final thought from you, do you think that and thank you for your service.

Lt. Col. FEHRENBACH: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.

MARTIN: Do you think that you can continue to serve under these circumstances, even if the policy does remain in place after what you've experienced?

Lt. Col. FEHRENBACH: Well, I know I can. Because, once again, from personal experience, this ordeal began in May of 2008. Before my discharge board in April 2009, myself and my chain of command, we kept every bit of this private. And I continue to do my same job in the same capacity in my same squadron for a year until my discharge board. It wasn't until a month after that that I said, well, they took everything from me, but what they didn't take from me was my honor, my integrity, my sense of right and wrong. And that's why I decided to speak out.

Speaking out in May of 2009, over a year ago, I've been, again, serving in the same job, the same capacity, the same squadron. So I have been there. I have personal experience and I know that I can continue to serve. And I know it hasn't been in fact, they say that, you know, the official term is my presence is detrimental to good order, discipline, morale and unit cohesion. The people I serve with every day are dedicated to the mission. They don't care about my private life and they're happy that I'm there.

My last performance report cited by the same it was my squadron commander, the three-star general who initiated the discharge signed my last performance report and, quote, "I raised morale and displayed infallible professionalism." So even the two individuals who initiated my discharge basically, on record, are supporting me.

MARTIN: Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fehrenbach. He's asking a federal judge to block his discharge from the Air Force for violating the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy. He was also joined here in our studio by his attorney, Drew Woodmansee.

Also with us, Katherine Miller. She said she resigned as a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point because she could not pursue she did not wish to pursue her education and military service as a closeted lesbian. She was with us on the phone from the academy. And, Katherine Miller, can I just ask you what are your plans?

Ms. MILLER: I'm going to be attending Yale University in the fall and continue my studies in sociology in the hopes of, you know, one day being able to improve military social policy, especially with respect to Don't Ask Don't Tell and homosexuals. However, if Don't Ask Don't Tell is repealed while I'm still an undergrad, then I plan to return to the United States Military Academy and graduate in commission as a second lieutenant because service is something that's near and dear to me.

MARTIN: Well, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. MILLER: Thank you.

MARTIN: Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us.

Lt. Col. FEHRENBACH: Thanks for having us.

Mr. WOODMANSEE: Thanks, Michel.

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