Defending in silence
After spending three months in thigh deep mud, in cramped quarters with no showers, Bridget Altenburg’s U.S. Army unit finally left Albania and arrived back in Germany. As a band played in the background, Altenburg walked past the crowd of families hugging and kissing their loved ones to drive herself home and be welcomed by her family. Her girlfriend, also a military service member, was waiting at their apartment.
It was a reminder of the secret life Altenburg had to live in order to pursue her goal of having a lifelong career in the military. Even before that day, Altenburg said she knew she couldn’t live like that any more and it cemented her decision to leave.
Altenburg said she is among the thousands of gay and lesbian service members who have voluntarily left the military because of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Nearly 13,000 service members have been discharged under the law since 1994, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a non-profit organization that aids those impacted by the law.
During his campaign, President Barack Obama said he would repeal the policy but has remained mostly silent on this issue. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief in court supporting the Defense of Marriage Act recently and asked the U.S. Supreme Court not to take a case challenging the law. Meanwhile more gay service members such as Arabic linguist Lt. Dan Choi and decorated pilot Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach have gone public with their discharge cases, urging Congress and Obama to repeal the law.
While supporters of a repeal say that the military is losing qualified gay and lesbian service members, opponents say upholding the ban is necessary to preserve unit cohesiveness especially in a time of war.
‘An officer shouldn’t lie’
Altenburg said she always thought she would have a lifelong career in the military like her father. She grew up on Army bases around the world and followed in her brother’s footsteps to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point where she graduated in 1995. In her time as an engineer officer between1995 and 2000, Altenburg was deployed to the Balkans three times and was a reservist until 2006 when she gave up her military commission. While she was at West Point and on her first two tours of duty, Altenburg said there was an environment that allowed some gay and lesbian name calling and jokes, similar to what probably takes place in a locker room. She said she didn’t realize she was gay until 1997 and that’s when the deception began. When soldiers’ personal lives came up in casual conversation, Altenburg said she had to play a constant “pronoun game” to answer questions. For example, if someone asked Altenburg if she was dating someone she would say, “Yes, they’re wonderful,” instead of saying he or she.
“I remember I used to wear my grandmother’s engagement ring just to keep people from asking me questions,” she said.
Over time, the games became more difficult to play especially as Altenburg formed close bonds with other soldiers. The people that you serve with are like family, she said, and she had to lie to them. One time an old friend from college who she played on a sports team with was stationed with her unit. Altenburg said she wanted to re-connect with this friend and be honest about her personal life. After Altenburg told this friend she was dating a woman, she never spoke to Altenburg again. For months, Altenburg worried that she would get a phone telling her that she was under investigation for being gay. She didn’t tell anyone else she worked closely with after that experience.
“I certainly didn’t know if that was going to be the way I was going to be kicked out of the Army. Because I told a friend I was dating a woman and she turned me in,” Altenburg said. “Luckily, that didn’t happen but it certainly happened to thousands of other soldiers.”
In a culture that teaches you that “an officer shouldn’t lie,” Altenburg said she was constantly finding ways to hide the truth. She said it was a tough decision to turn her back on the only career she had ever known but in the end she knew could never be herself if she stayed. Because of her upbringing, Altenburg said she originally had an attitude that “the military could do no wrong” and that if she couldn’t serve in silence that it was her fault for not being able to handle it.
“I was in the closet so I didn’t know there were thousands of people that were trying to live the same way that I was trying to live, and struggling and getting kicked out or just leaving on their own,” she said.
Through her involvement with SLDN and Knights Out, an independent group of West Point alumni, staff and faculty who support rights for gay soldiers, Altenburg said she began to realize how damaging the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law really is. It gives the perception that “as long as you keep it to yourself, you’ll be OK,” she said, and that nobody can ask you about your sexual preference. But in reality Altenburg said many soldiers are kicked out because suspicions that they are gay lead to investigations. For example, a photo on Facebook at a gay pride parade can lead to an investigation, she said, or a service member can turn in their fellow soldier because that person is living with someone of the same sex. In working with SLDN, Altenburg heard one story where a civilian wrote to their former lover’s battalion commander to out them.
When the military finds out someone is gay, Altenburg said the service member has two options. She said they can leave quietly with an honorable discharge or fight it, with the chance that they could be given a dishonorable discharge. A dishonorable discharge means you could lose some of your benefits, Altenburg said, and could affect your chances of getting a job. It’s a scary way to live your life, she said.
“I know plenty of people are serving openly to their fellow soldiers but you never know when you’re going to run up against someone who has a problem with that and then it’s all over,” she said.
A big mistake
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, said it would be a mistake for Congress and the president to repeal the ban on gays serving in the military, especially when the country is fighting two wars. Donnelly said the commonly referred to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy isn’t consistent with the Military Personnel Eligibility Act of 1993, which is a law. She said the law says that homosexuals are not eligible to be in the Armed Forces and that it’s been confused with this idea that serving in silence is acceptable. Military service isn’t a constitutional right, Donnelly said, and many groups aren’t allowed to serve. The military has criteria such as age restrictions, weight standards and physical health issues that exclude many people from serving.
Donnelly believes that thousands of service members would leave and choose not to re-enlist under a variety of circumstances that would arise from a repeal of the law. Heterosexual service members would be forced to live in close quarters with gay service members who may be attracted to them, she said, and units would have to deal with more disciplinary issues from female to female, or male to male conflicts. Non-discriminatory language in a law would extend the “zero tolerance” policy to dissent about homosexuality, Donnelly said. Service members who have complaints about inappropriate conduct by gay soldiers may be unwilling to step forward because their personal attitudes about homosexuality could have career repercussions. Donnelly said everyone would have to accept homosexuality, which would force many people to leave voluntarily.
Although advocates for repeal say that more people are accepting of gays serving in the military than before, Donnelly said civilian attitudes shouldn’t affect military culture and policies. For example, to a civilian “unit cohesiveness” means getting along with one another, Donnelly said. But in the military it means much more because your life is constantly in danger and you have to trust your fellow soldiers and commanders for survival, she said. Donnelly said the Military Times, a publication for active-duty service members, conducted a poll in 2008 which found that 14 percent of respondents said they would consider leaving the military if the Military Personnel Eligibility Act was repealed. Another 10 percent said they wouldn’t re-enlist. Donnelly claims that losing even a few thousand mid-level officers and non-commissioned officers would mean a loss in leadership for the future and a smaller force at a time when the military is trying to retain service members.
“This is a volunteer force and we can’t require people to stay,” she said.
Donnelly said there is no proof that repealing the law would help the military and that it would cause a major disruption instead. She said more than a thousand retired Flag and General Officers for the Military signed a letter earlier this year asking Obama and Congress to uphold the ban.
“We believe that imposing this burden on our men and women in uniform would undermine recruiting and retention, impact leadership at all levels, have adverse effects on the willingness of parents who lend their sons and daughters to military service, and eventually break the All-Volunteer Force,” the letter said.
But Altenburg said the law is already impacting military readiness. It costs millions of dollars to train service members, she said, and it doesn’t make sense to lose qualified and highly specialized soldiers just because they’re gay. She said thousands of gay and lesbian soldiers are already serving in the military. Many U.S. allies such as Great Britain allow open service by gay soldiers, she said, and it hasn’t destroyed their military. Altenburg said the American military has handled much more challenging situations and feels the military should be able to “support open service without falling apart at the seams.” About three years after she left the service, she found out that one of the specialized units she served with knew that she was a lesbian. A non-commissioned officer in that unit told Altenburg that they all knew and didn’t care.
“What effects unit cohesion and military readiness more than people serving in silence is when you’re lying,” she said. “It’s like a family…people can tell when you’re lying.”
The Uniform Code of Military Justice already has provisions that deal with professional standards and disciplinary issues, Altenburg said, which address many of the concerns opponents have cited. Altenburg said the ban has caused many young gays and lesbians to not even consider a military career, which hurts recruitment efforts.
Altenburg, who has gone to Washington D.C. to lobby Congress to repeal the law, said education and awareness for the cause among lawmakers has grown since her first trip there three years ago. She said that it’s “only a matter of time” before a bill is passed to allow gays to openly serve. Donnelly said recent statements by the current administration show that a repeal of the law is unlikely in the near future.
Although she is happy with her life in Chicago, Altenburg said there is a part of her that will always wish she “could serve again in a different time.” She said she knows many former service members who say they will be back in their recruiter’s office to serve again if the law is repealed.
“There’s a reason that you serve your country,” she said. “That desire to serve your country always stays with you.”