A Face of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell“

Chapel Hill – Though she has long wanted to be an Army doctor, Sara Isaacson says she also wants to live an honest life. So on Jan. 25, the UNC-Chapel Hill ROTC cadet handed her commander a written statement revealing that she is a lesbian.

Doing so ended her military career and will likely cost her more than $79,000. That’s what she owes the federal government, which was paying for her UNC-CH schooling – at out-of-state rates – while the Wisconsin native went through her military training.

“I’ve dreamed since I was 13 of a career as a military officer,” Isaacson said this week. “But I knew I wouldn’t be OK with myself if I had to lie every day.”

Since outing herself, the 21-year-old has become a fresh face in the national movement that opposes the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, which mandates the dismissal of openly gay, lesbian or bisexual members of the military. Isaacson has been to Washington twice to lobby members of Congress, and a national group that provides legal counsel to service members is using her story to condemn the law. Their cause is gathering steam. President Barack Obama has called for its repeal, and high-ranking members of the military have backed him.

Meanwhile, Isaacson needs a new life plan. The old one, which started with ROTC and included medical school and a career in the Army, is gone.

Isaacson realized last fall that she is a lesbian. There was no moment of epiphany, just a slow light turning on to finally provide her some clarity. She was in her seventh semester at UNC-CH, a senior enjoying her ROTC leadership role. If she had stayed quiet, she would have graduated this year and been commissioned – an ambition she has held since hearing stories from her grandfather, an Army doctor in post-World War II Okinawa, Japan.

Although the don’t ask, don’t tell rule prohibits the military from asking service members about their sexual preferences, it also mandates that gays not make their orientation public. Isaacson said the law would have forced her to evade questions or situations or even to lie about them. For example, she couldn’t list a partner as next of kin on official documentation, she said.

Although Isaacson believed she was straight until last year, she said she was a vocal supporter of gay rights. In high school in suburban Milwaukee, she was involved in the distribution of a controversial “Heterosexual Questionnaire.” It asked students questions like “When did you decide you were a heterosexual?” according to a local news report at the time.

Drawn by a strong undergraduate sciences program, Isaacson chose UNC-CH over the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Northwestern University. She was among the top five students in a high school class of 215, and she first came to UNC-CH on an academic scholarship that was eventually replaced by the federal funds.

She’s been busy in college. Along with her ROTC classes and early morning workouts three days a week, the chemistry major has been a resident assistant, worked with a sexual assault prevention group and played the piccolo in the marching band.

She does not have a partner.

Fervor for Repeal

Had Isaacson chosen silence, it might not have been forever. In his first State of the Union Address, Obama announced his desire to repeal don’t ask, don’t tell, and the Pentagon began a yearlong study of the ramifications. Nearly 200 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have signed onto a bill that would repeal the law.

Since 1994, about 13,500 members of the military have been dismissed under the policy, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the Washington-based organization that has used Isaacson’s story in its fight for repeal of the policy. The organization hears from a few students each year in situations similar to Isaacson’s, said Trevor Thomas, a spokesman for the group.

Though the financial implications are jarring, Isaacson said she isn’t trying to get out of the repayment. Her case is now being considered by Cadet Command, the military office that runs ROTC programs nationwide. There, someone will decide how she’ll repay the $79,265.14 that the government has spent on her education.

The terms of Isaacson’s deal with the military are clear, said Mike Johnson, a Cadet Command spokesman.

“To accept the scholarship, the kid signs a contract and agrees to serve X years in the U.S. Army,” he said.

No “Rash Decision”

Even after coming out, Isaacson had a chance to get back into the Army’s good graces.

“A lot of college students are still trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives,” said her commander, Lt. Col. Monte Yoder, who directs the ROTC program at UNC-CH. “I asked her if she wanted to withdraw her letter. But she clearly wanted not to be involved in the military at all.”

Isaacson said she does want to serve, if the Army will accept her as she is.

“I would definitely still want to serve as an officer,” she said. “This is something I’ve dreamed of for eight years. That doesn’t go away.”

Isaacson’s decision was a long, wrenching process. She talked at length with her parents and campus mentors and consulted with former military members. She had sleepless nights and sometimes forgot to eat. Overwhelmed, she withdrew from spring semester classes.

“She did not make a rash decision in the least,” said her roommate last year, Demi Marshall, a rising UNC-CH junior. “She knew the consequences and the potential reactions. But she could not hide herself.”

Isaacson now needs a fifth year at UNC-CH – and some financial aid – to get her degree. Medical school is still an option, but she’s also become interested in activism. She enjoyed talking to members of Congress about don’t ask, don’t tell.

Her father, Ken Isaacson, has spent a lot of time brainstorming solutions. Could she get the money back if the federal policy is repealed? Will there be an installment plan for repayment? Could she somehow fulfill her commitment in a civilian role?

So far, no answers.

“It’s disappointing that our country doesn’t want her,” he said. “But she will find some way to make her mark.”

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