Lifting of policy marks end of silence for gay military members

The lifting of the controversial 1993 policy marks the end of silence for gay military members.
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Sarah Hjalmarson, a former Army medic, thinks about re-enlisting every day. She misses the camaraderie, sense of purpose and honor that came with being a soldier. But she's not sure she can ask "the love of my life" to take on what she considers to be one of the service's hardest jobs: military spouse.

Starting Tuesday, Hjalmarson can make the decision to re-enlist without also having to keep her partner of two years, Katie Stiel, a secret.

"Don't ask, don't tell" — the policy that, since 1993, has allowed gay and lesbian service members to be in the military as long as they kept their sexual orientation and their relationships hidden — will be scrapped on Sept. 20.

The repeal will affect an estimated 71,000 lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) men and women in the U.S. military, according to the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law. The policy's demise could prompt 36,700 more Americans to enter active duty service and another 8,700 to join the ready reserve, according to a May 2010 report by Williams Institute demographer Gary Gates, using the Census Bureau's American Community Survey and the 2008 General Social Survey, sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

No one can predict how many LGB service members will come out to their colleagues and commanders. But if they want to confide in a chaplain, share relationship challenges with a counselor or bring a same-sex partner to a unit party, they can do so without fear of being discharged.

As part of the repeal process, every branch of the armed forces has conducted training sessions to educate troops on what it will mean to serve alongside openly gay soldiers.

A Department of Defense survey last year of more than 115,000 U.S. troops found that 70 percent believe the repeal will have a positive, mixed or no effect on their unit's ability to "work together to get the job done." Of service members who have served with a co-worker who they believed was gay or lesbian, 92 percent stated that the unit's ability to work together was "very good," "good" or "neither good nor poor."

Jonathan Hopkins, a former Army captain who was discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" in 2010, expects cases of harassment of openly gay service members by their colleagues to be rare. He now is a spokesman for OutServe, an advocacy group for gay service members based in Washington, D.C.

"Overwhelmingly, people do the right thing," Hopkins said. "They just try to get the mission done and take care of their buddy — no matter who their buddy is."

In a May survey of LGB service members, 11 percent said they plan to come out to "everyone" in their unit and 31 percent said they plan to come out to a few close friends or most members of their unit. Twenty-nine percent said they won't come out to anyone else in the military as a result of the repeal. OutServe plans to release an updated survey on Monday.

"There's the macro-environment, which is the political and policy work that is being done on this issue, and then there is the micro-environment of: What is it really like at your installation and in your unit?" said Valerie Larabee, a former Air Force officer and executive director of the Utah Pride Center in Salt Lake City. "That's a huge factor. It's going to take a lot of time and education for people to really feel safe in coming out."

More than 14,500 gay and lesbian service members have been discharged under "don't ask, don't tell," according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Thousands more have completed their service quietly. All of them have been affected differently by the policy and will experience the end of it in their own way.

The Salt Lake Tribune interviewed three gay Utahns who are past and present service members about their experiences serving under "don't ask, don't tell" and their thoughts about the repeal.

Sarah Hjalmarson • As a self-described "dutiful daughter," Hjalmarson (pronounced HAL-mar-son) listened to her mother and did not enlist immediately after high school. But as a student at Northern Arizona University, her desire to join the Army only grew after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and after meeting other service members.

"I saw the honor and duty they had not only in their service in the military, but as it translated in their own lives. I think that just really appealed to me," Hjalmarson said. "We hear a lot of negatives about it. But there are negatives and positives in everything. There's an idealist in me who sees the good in it."

So before completing her degree, she signed up at age 21 to be an Army medic. She went to basic training in March 2003 as the Iraq War began. She also acknowledged for the first time that she is a lesbian. Before leaving for basic, she and her best friend of three years confessed their feelings for one another. Her best friend had also enlisted, but the women would be serving apart. They stayed together for three years. But the difficulty of a long-distance relationship, and not being able to talk about it at work, became too much of a strain, Hjalmarson said.

"It was this thing I had to keep inside because I could lose this job, this job that I love," she said. "Everyone else gets to talk about the family they are going back to during R&R [rest and relaxation]. They get to have that bonding experience with other soldiers. I couldn't express that in any way. You don't realize how belittling that feels until it's right there."

So she kept her relationship a secret while she was deployed in a hospital emergency room at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan from February 2005 to March 2006. There, she treated soldiers and civilians wounded in combat. She saw everything from runny noses and smashed fingers to gunshot wounds and severed limbs.

"I'll work in health care the rest of my life and never again see the things that I saw while I was there. It was the best and the worst year of my life," she said "I came home with … friends that will be friends for the rest of my life, but nightmares that will be nightmares for the rest of my life."

A year later, she was in a new relationship and tired of playing the "pronoun game." She would refer to her "fiancée" but would speak in terms of "we," not "she." Hjalmarson finished her four-year commitment and left active duty but stayed in the reserves until November 2010.

"That [policy] really affected my service. I probably would still be serving if not for that," she said. "It's certainly exciting to see the end of it."

But she also hopes to see the military welcome transgender individuals and extend spousal benefits to same-sex partners if the Defense of Marriage Act is repealed. The act defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Now, Hjalmarson, 29, lives in Salt Lake City with Stiel. Hjalmarson is wrapping up her bachelor's degree in health promotion and education at the University of Utah.

She said she thinks about returning to the Army "every day," but remains undecided. "I just miss it."

John • Like many other gay service members, John does not plan to come out after "don't ask, don't tell" ends. Because of that, he asked not to be identified and is using John as a pseudonym.

John grew up in the Salt Lake Valley and joined the Utah Army National Guard in 2005 to fly airplanes and helicopters. He is studying to be a pilot and works as a mechanic at the Guard's facility at South Valley Regional Airport in West Jordan. He has served two tours in Iraq.

"I love what I do. It's a pretty awesome job to have," said John, who is in his early 30s. "There aren't a whole lot of people out there who get to fly in helicopters every day."

At the time he joined, he was not out to anyone, so "don't ask, don't tell" did not give him any pause. Now, he is out to his family and close friends, including a couple of people in the Guard. But he doesn't think the repeal will affect him very much. It doesn't mean his partner, if he had one, would be entitled to hospital visitation or educational benefits.

"It will be a lot more comfortable knowing that I don't have to hide anything," he said. "But [the repeal isn't] going to change how I act and how I carry myself. I'm still going there to do the same thing I've always done."

He is concerned about those in the military who may feel uncomfortable serving with an openly gay man. During the repeal trainings in his unit, some asked why they wouldn't be given separate showers for gay and straight men. Having served two tours in Iraq, John said he does not want to go into combat with a soldier who feels any kind of discomfort knowing he is gay.

"I understand for most people in the military who aren't used to working very closely with gay people, it's very uncomfortable for them, especially in tight living quarters," John said. "If someone finds out [I'm gay], no big deal. I'm not going to go run around with a rainbow flag tied to my back."

Brian Adkins • Brian Adkins, 22, completed his four-year commitment as an administrative specialist in the U.S. Marine Corps in August. But he plans to go back once he finishes a bachelor's degree at the University of Utah.

After graduating from high school in a conservative, southern Baptist community in rural Tennessee, Adkins joined the Marines as a way to pay for his college education — and escape. At the time, Adkins was not openly gay. He came out in the Marines at his first duty station.

"I was away from family and friends. I could finally explore who I was," Adkins recalled.

He also had the support of the first openly gay man he had met in his life — a fellow Marine who sat two desks away.

Knowing gay military members changed his own perception of what it meant to be gay. As a teen, his only image had been of Ru Paul, the flamboyant drag queen and television personality.

"I would see them and think, 'I don't have to fit any sort of mold. I can be a man who is attracted to men and loves men, but I can still be myself. I don't have to do anything crazy or be too over the top,' " Adkins said.

His experience in the Marines helped him gain confidence. Even though it was generally known he was gay, he never had a problem with any of his commanding officers or peers, he said.

"If you accept yourself for who you are and you've proven yourself as who you are, then everyone around you is either going to accept you or get out of your way," he said. "I walk into the office, and I am myself. I don't make a fuss about being gay. I don't need everyone to know. But I'm not going to cover it up."

He sees "don't ask, don't tell" as a necessary transition to allowing LGB men and women to serve openly.

"It definitely opened the door," he said. "I am all for it going away. … I would like for everybody to have the equal opportunity to serve."