Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Two Veterans’ Stories

Activism is rarely why most gay and lesbian veterans join the military. The desire to serve their country, develop a career and carry on family traditions are just some of the more common reasons.

Yet in the era of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, serving their country honorably has not been an option for these soldiers if they are discovered to be gay or lesbian. Many have come out to fight that policy.

Camp covered this debate in the February issue in an article about a rally and protest of U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, who, as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, opposes a bill that would overturn DADT.

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) reports that since 1994, more than 13,500 soldiers have been fired under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Studies and surveys are now overwhelmingly showing that most of the public and even active-duty members of the military support lifting the ban. Military leaders such as Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; and even Gen. Colin Powell now support the repeal.

The military has said it is taking a year to decide, and President Obama has said he will not issue an executive order even though he supports lifting the ban, as he said in his State of the Union speech.

All signs indicate that the policy will be repealed. But for the soldiers forced out or for those who voluntarily resigned to live an openly homosexual life, this will not be a pleasant part of history.

Beth Schissel, a pediatrician and former member of the Air Force, spoke at the Jan. 28 rally about having to resign to avoid being forced out. Schissel lives with Sally White, her partner of more than 10 years, in Kansas City.

“My actual date of discharge is September 10 of 2001. Which is pretty ironic. That’s the day that my honorable discharge paperwork was signed by the secretary of the Air Force. I lost my opportunity to serve and earn my military retirement.”

Schissel said she came out to the military in the fall of her senior year of medical school, which is when they stopped funding her education. She began her career with the Air Force in 1984 and said she was about 14 years short of retirement when she was discharged. If she had stayed in the military, she could now be retired from the Air Force with full benefits.

“I have moments of being very bitter about that,” she said “That part is frustrating, don’t get me wrong. But I can live with the fact that I don’t have a military pension. What bothers me is that my decision to leave the military wasn’t in my hands. That, to me, is more the factor. …

“People have asked me, ‘So it’s that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue piece,’ because I obviously got pursued and everybody forgets that part of the policy. If I wasn’t pursued, would I still be wearing a uniform? And I look at people and I honestly couldn’t tell you if I would, because I’m not sure that I could continue to serve in silence.

“It’s very, very difficult to go to work every day with just simple conversations like, ‘What did you do over the weekend?’ or a function in your unit is occurring and you don’t bring anybody with you because you can’t. And I don’t know to what degree that amount of stress that goes along with continuing to have to hide who you are … I don’t know that I could have lived with that.”

“I ended up having to out myself, and that was a very, very hard decision. I had thought that I could just continue to serve silently. Unfortunately for me, a person came into my life who decided to go on a vendetta and basically stalked me, followed me, my house was broken into. I was threatened to be outed. This person went as far as contacting a judge advocate general’s office to find out that if they told someone that I was gay that the military would then start an investigation on me. And at that point, in concert with conversations with my support attorney at SLDN, decided that I was going to be better off outing myself than trying to control someone trying to destroy my honorable service and my honorable career

“The hardest part about that whole process was that I had been mentored by a gentleman [Gen. Andy Anderson> who went on to become surgeon general of the Air Force while I was on active duty, and then I went off to medical school and he ultimately got promoted to surgeon general and then had retired at the time. I called him on the phone and I said ‘Here’s my situation. What can we do? I really don’t want to get out of the military. But I cannot continue to live like this.’

“I’m on these military rotations, everybody likes me, I’m doing a good job, people are saying why don’t you come and do your residency with us and all this sort of stuff. And yet you just have this thought that at any given moment in time all that could be yanked out from underneath you.

She said Anderson “did what he could to try and help, but ultimately I had to call the folks that basically controlled my half of the alphabet, as it was, and come out to them. And then they immediately cut off all funding and started investigating me.”

If Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed and if her age of 44 was not too old, would she consider re-enlisting?

“If they would take me back, would I go? Yeah, I probably would,” she said, “because I didn’t get to finish what I started and that was to complete my service to my country. I didn’t get to go out on my terms.”

Shonda Garrison, a former member of the Army who now works for the U.S. Postal Service, also knew that she could not serve in silence and resigned. She lives in Missouri with her wife, Missouri State Sen. Jolie Justus.

It’s been nearly 10 years since she left in November 2000, having served for eight years with a break between her first term of duty and her re-enlistment.

“It wasn’t like I was out flaunting it, but I never kept it a secret. The people that I worked with knew that I had girlfriends, but it was never an issue. But I kept seeing stories where people would be going along in their careers and it was always something like 18-19 years and the next thing you know, all of a sudden they found out they’re gay and they were kicking them out. And I kept going back and forth and in my mind that most people retire in 20 years so I figured right before that 10-year mark I needed to decide one way or another. If I was going to stay in, I was going to stay in, once I got to that 10-year mark. I couldn’t risk staying in that many more years and getting ready for retirement and getting outed by somebody.”

If she had stayed in the military, she would now be only two years away from full retirement. “It’s hard. I think about it a lot. But at the same time I think I made the right decision. I don’t regret it. I regret that I couldn’t have stayed in and served my time.”

“… I still have friends that are still in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it’s just something you don’t really understand unless you’ve been in the military but I just feel like I should be there. I guess the thing that angers me the most -- and this is strictly my experience and what I’ve seen -- I think statistics will show you, though, that the majority of people who get kicked out under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell are women. I think you will find, too, that a lot of times, not necessarily the sexual orientation that gets them kicked out, it’s used as the tool that gets them kicked out. I mean, how is it that somebody goes 18, 19 years with honorable service and their sexuality is never questioned and then all of a sudden, right before retirement they’re being kicked out?”

She spoke of a personal situation where she had just gotten back from Desert Storm and there was a civilian who was reporting her.

“Everybody always knew about me and it was never an issue and they contacted my unit commander trying to start trouble. He pulled me into his office and … he basically told me that I needed to handle it and get it taken care of because when somebody starts questioning something then they have to go in and start an investigation.

“I was able to handle the situation and it never went any further than that, but it was one of those things where everybody in my unit knew about me, but had somebody kept pushing the issue they would have had to investigate me and I would have probably been kicked out.”

In a letter Garrison wrote about Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, she sums up her feelings in the closing paragraph:

“In closing, I would like to say something in reference to what President Obama said in his SOTU speech. In his ending statement he talked about how he and the American people were not quitters. Well, I’m not a quitter either. I didn’t quit on my country during the first Gulf War, so I hope you, President Obama and others who can change this civil injustice, don’t quit on veterans like me and all the LGBT service members we have fighting for us right now in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

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