MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Anthony Woods' rank in the U.S. Army is incorrectly identified. He was a captain.]
Now, since the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy was put into place in 1993, thousands of U.S. service members have been discharged for being gay. Major Anthony Woods is one of them. He did two tours in Iraq and had a job offer at West Point. Then he outed himself to his commander, and everything changed.
NPR's Rachel Martin met with Woods to talk about what's more difficult for him: being a closeted gay soldier, or not being a soldier at all.
RACHEL MARTIN: Anthony Woods joined the Army when he was 18 and for him, the whole thing just clicked.
Mr. ANTHONY WOODS: I was deeply satisfied by what I was doing, and it felt like a calling, you know? And I knew that then, and I knew that the day I was kicked out.
MARTIN: I met Woods at the apartment he shares with his boyfriend, just a couple miles from the Pentagon. Above his front door hangs a simple Christian cross. On the walls of his living room, posters with British military slogans from World War II - Freedom is in Peril: Defend it With all Your Might. And another that reads Keep Calm and Carry On.
He tells me that while he was sure about his military career path, his sexuality was something far more confusing. He tried to date girls, but it never worked out. And by the time he got to West Point for college, he knew.
Mr. WOODS: I recognized, and I understood, who I was. I knew. And I knew I was different; I knew I was gay; and I knew the military didn't allow that, you know. So I knew that would be a problem.
MARTIN: His solution: Just ignore it, and bury himself in work. Ultimately, that meant deploying to Iraq - first in 2004, and again in 2005. Woods says in many ways, life there was easier.
Mr. WOODS: Because nobody asks you questions about why you're single when you're deployed - because everyone is sort of single, you know? Everyone is away from their significant other. You're not being asked, hey, let's go out to a bar. You know, you're friends aren't setting you up on a date.
MARTIN: I asked him if he'd had any romantic relationships when he was in the Army.
Mr. WOODS: I didn't. I...
MARTIN: That part of your life, you just shut that down?
Mr. WOODS: Completely. And that was one of the very real challenges of living under Don't Ask, Don't Tell - is, some people make the choice of - they're going to try to be secretive. They're going to try to hide a significant other. I was even more paranoid and said that, you know, I don't want to do anything to risk jeopardizing my career in the military.
MARTIN: That changed when Woods went to grad school. The Army offered to pay half of Woods' tuition at Harvard University. Under the terms of the grant, the student would have to pay back the tuition money if he or she was discharged under Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Woods' plan was to get a master's degree so he could then teach at his alma mater, West Point. But he started thinking about the school's strict honor code.
Mr. WOODS: That a cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do. And I realized that if I'm standing in front of this classroom of, you know, cadets, if I'm standing in front of them and lying, I'm not living up to that code.
MARTIN: So he started coming out to friends and family. He started dating men. And he finally decided to tell his commanding officer.
Did you second-guess yourself on that day? Did you think, maybe I shouldn't do this?
Mr. WOODS: I second-guessed myself for six months. I mean, that was one of the most excruciating, agonizing decisions I've ever made in my entire life because I knew everything that I would be giving up.
MARTIN: And he was right. The Army launched an investigation and ultimately, discharged him. And that meant he'd be forced to pay the Army back the $38,000 in tuition money. Most of his friends in the military were supportive, but not all. One close friend accused Woods of lying on purpose, and he published his comments online.
Mr. WOODS: This guy - who I was a groomsman in his wedding - who essentially said, you know, Tony Woods is a fraud. You need to question his integrity. He's cheating the taxpayers. He's cheating the system. It was like a punch to the stomach.
MARTIN: Woods may be out of the Army, but he's still engaged in the debate about gays in the military. He's heard the public concerns by military and civilian groups, that repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell would erode unit cohesion. It would be too disruptive, some say, especially during a time of war. He's also heard the concerns that some service members express in private.
Mr. WOODS: And implying that they're going to be getting leered at in the showers, and that they're going to have to room with some flamboyant person who's going to try to force themselves upon them. And it's absolute nonsense.
MARTIN: After his discharge, Woods ran for Congress in California. He lost, but it whet his appetite for politics. Now, he's working for a Washington, D.C., community service nonprofit, and he collaborates with groups trying to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
As we finish our conversation, I ask him if he's comfortable with his decision.
Mr. WOODS: There's no more internal struggle. There's no more internal arguments. I'm comfortable. I'm happy. I'm satisfied with life in a very different way.
MARTIN: You're just not in the military.
Mr. WOODS: Exactly. And that's the hard part.
Rachel Martin, NPR News.
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