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Friday, December 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
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Gay veterans in Madison cheer the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell
'It was my right to serve my country'
Jay Hatheway and Rep. Tammy Baldwin hold copies of the legislation ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
Jay Hatheway and Rep. Tammy Baldwin hold copies of the legislation ending Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
Credit:Edward Taylor

Thirty-six years ago Jay Hatheway was court-martialed for violating the Army's ban on homosexuality.

In response, he mounted the first constitutional challenge to the federal law banning homosexuality in the military.

At the time, Hatheway was a commissioned Green Beret intelligence officer at a detachment in West Germany, so close to sensitive secrets that he was the first at his post to read a confidential White House telegram noting that Pres. Richard Nixon was set to resign the following day.

Hatheway made his way through college on a four-year Army ROTC scholarship. After graduating in 1971, Hatheway, now a history professor at Edgewood College, attended special forces training at Ft. Bragg, N.C., jump school and language school.

In 1972 he was assigned to the 10th Special Forces Group in Bad Tolz, Germany. Hatheway says he grew anxious about his sexual orientation coming to light and in 1975 applied for separation from the Army. Ten days before he was to be honorably discharged, he was charged with sexual misconduct.

Hatheway was defended by a military lawyer and the America Civil Liberties Union. After a five-month trial in Germany, he was convicted of committing sodomy with an enlisted man. The military prosecutor recommended dismissal from the service and "confinement at hard labor for five years," but the jury settled on booting him from the Army.

Hatheway appealed twice in military courts and lost both times. The ACLU then appealed Hatheway's conviction in federal court, where he lost. In 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal.

In a book he wrote about his experience, Guilty as Charged: The True Story of a Gay Beret, Hatheway says the trauma of his trial, and the physical and emotional abuse he endured at the time from military personnel, was to haunt him for decades. One incident is particularly vivid: Hatheway was forced to undergo neuropsychological testing, where 50 small pins were inserted under his skin in a ring around his head. Blood trickled down his face and neck, recalls Hatheway, but no evidence of insanity was found.

Hatheway eventually found his way to Madison for graduate school, became involved in gay rights issues and then turned his attention to scholarship and teaching.

In 1993, at the request of then U.S. Rep. Scott Klug, R-Madison, Hatheway submitted testimony to Congress on a proposal that became known as Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The plan, opposed by Hatheway but signed that same year by Pres. Bill Clinton, replaced the military's ban on gay soldiers with one on openly gay soldiers. That nearly 18-year-old policy is now set for repeal on Sept. 20.

Though it's a welcome development, Hatheway nevertheless approaches the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell with some weariness.

"I think it's long, long overdue," says Hatheway.

He says the "witch hunts" he and thousands of other gay service members endured have cost taxpayers millions. "And for what?" he asks. "I went to two language schools [at the Army's expense]. No less than tens of thousands of dollars were wasted on what I think is a non-issue."

But, he adds, "For those of us caught up in the dragnet, it wasn't a non-issue."

Anthony Hardie, a gay Army special operations veteran who received the Bronze Star for his service during the 1991 Gulf War, says the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is "an idea whose time has really come. People have been ready to deal with this for a long time."

The first time homosexuality in the military was officially banned was in the Articles of War of 1916.

But it was not until World War II that a ban was enforced, with each branch of the Armed Forces in 1942 adopting guidelines identifying homosexuality as a psychological illness and as grounds for discharge.

Such a ban, the military long argued, was needed for troop morale, unit cohesion, national security and military readiness.

Hardie, who served as executive assistant to the secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs from 2003 to 2009, finds the arguments around national security particularly ironic, given the way gay people in the military have been forced to live.

"Gay people as security risks? You've got to be kidding. We are the best at keeping secrets. We are better than anybody because we keep them every day."

Hardie, who has never before spoken publicly about his sexual orientation, says he did what other gay military personnel did in order to serve: "I compartmentalized my life."

While stationed at Ft. Bragg, Hardie lived off base in a nearby town. "I didn't allow anyone from the unit to come over. No people from my gay life could come over. I was even careful with phone calls."

Amy Walker, a UW optometrist and retired colonel who served in the Air Force and Air National Guard for a combined 22 years, says she was not about to let the military's policy on gay soldiers stand in her way.

"It was my right to serve my country, just like any other American," says Walker. "I think that is the way a lot of gay Americans who serve their country feel."

Still, Walker admits to living an uncomfortable "double life" before retiring from the military. And she says she didn't fully realize at the time the toll it took on her and her relationships.

Two years after leaving the service, she's still adjusting - even getting used to using "we" instead of "I" all the time.

"It is a vernacular I haven't been used to using, and that's a sad thing," she says. "You don't think how sad until you see the pain in your partner's face."

Although Don't Ask, Don't Tell was supposed to eclipse discrimination against gays in the military, it did not stop discharges based on sexual orientation. Since 1993, more than 14,500 service members have been fired under the policy, according to the Service Members Legal Defense Network.

Studies, including one by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, put the cost to the taxpayer of these firings upwards of $200 million.

Since World War II, an estimated 1 million gay service members have been discharged. It is estimated there are 66,000 gay Americans on active military duty and 1 million gay veterans.

Momentum to lift the ban on gays in the military gathered steam during the 1992 presidential campaign. Pres. Bill Clinton made it a campaign pledge but did not get Congress or the Pentagon on board. The result was Don't Ask, Don't Tell, a compromise that nevertheless maintained the ban.

Pres. Barack Obama took aim at Don't Ask, Don't Tell during his presidential campaign and made its repeal a priority when elected. This time things were different.

Public opinion had shifted, critical members of the Pentagon were supportive, a Pentagon study predicted little impact from lifting the ban, and there was concrete evidence that armies without such a ban - including Canada's and Israel's - were doing just fine.

In addition, gay service members began to tell their stories, says U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Madison), one of the congressional leaders who pushed hard for repeal.

"We have had our service members, both in the military and those who have left, speak out, tell their stories and put a face to these struggles," says Baldwin, an out lesbian. "I think that is what turned public opinion."

Baldwin says wartime makes the issue more visceral for the average American. "When we know these service members are going to be in harm's way, it adds a whole new layer to this debate. American citizens in huge percentages would not stand by and let them be discriminated against."

What happens now, in practical terms, is somewhat unclear. There are already reports of gay vets encountering problems when trying to reenlist. The question of what benefits may be owed to gay veterans or their families could well turn into an epic battle of its own.

But Baldwin says there has been extensive training in the Armed Services for implementing the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and she stands ready to help any constituents who have problems.

While some Republican presidential candidates have already said they would reinstate Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Baldwin doesn't see that happening, no matter who wins the White House.

"I suspect that, given the enormity of the undertaking, even a very homophobic president is not going to be successful in overturning it."

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