They lived shadow lives in the military, afraid that disclosure of their sexuality would ruin carefully plotted careers. Many were deeply humiliated by drawn-out investigations and unceremonious discharges.
Yet despite their bitter partings with the armed forces, many gay men and lesbians who were discharged under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy say they want to rejoin the service, drawn by a life they miss or stable pay and benefits they could not find in civilian life.
By some estimates, hundreds of gay men and lesbians among the more than 13,000 who were discharged under the policy have contacted recruiters or advocacy groups saying they want to re-enlist after the policy is repealed on Sept. 20.
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Bleu Copas is one. He had been in the Army for just three years when someone sent an anonymous e-mail to his commanders telling them he was gay. After he was discharged in 2006 under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military’s ban on openly gay troops, “It took away all my value as a person,” he recalled.
Michael Almy is another. When the Air Force began its investigation into whether he was gay, it suspended his security clearance and relieved him of his command. On his final day in service in 2006, police officers escorted him to the gate. “It left kind of a bitter taste,” he said.
Though the Pentagon says it will welcome their applications, former service members discharged for homosexuality will not be granted special treatment. They will have to pass physical fitness tests and prove that they have skills the armed services need right now. Some will have aged to the point that they will need waivers to get back in.
Even if they pass those hurdles, there is no guarantee that they will go back to their former jobs or ranks. And because the armed services are beginning to shrink, some will be rejected because there are no available slots.
People discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell” who wish to return to service “will be evaluated according to the same criteria and requirements applicable to all others seeking re-entry into the military,” said Eileen Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman. “The services will continue to base accessions of prior-service members on the needs of the service and the skills and qualifications of the applicants.”
To be eligible for re-enlistment, former service members cannot have been discharged under “other than honorable conditions,” Ms. Lainez said. The majority of people released under the policy since 1993 — a significant number of them highly trained intelligence analysts and linguists — received honorable discharges.
As with all people who join the military, the reasons for wanting to rejoin vary widely. Some say they want to finish what they started, but on their own terms. Others point to the steady pay, good health care and retirement benefits. Still others talk idealistically about a desire to serve and be part of an enterprise larger than themselves.
“It’s a hunger,” said Mr. Copas, who now works with homeless veterans in Knoxville, Tenn. “It doesn’t necessarily make sense. It’s the idea of faith, like an obligation to family.”
Jase Daniels was actually discharged twice. Because of a clerical error, the Navy failed to note on his records that the reason for his first discharge in 2005 was homosexuality. So the following year, when his services as a linguist were needed, the Pentagon recalled him.
“I wanted to go back so bad, I was jumping up and down,” he said. “The military was my life.”
He was open about his sexual orientation while deployed to Kuwait for a year, he says. But a profile of him in Stars and Stripes led to a new investigation, and he was discharged a second time upon coming home in 2007.
Now 29, Mr. Daniels says that in the years since, “I’ve had no direction in my life.” He wants to become an officer and learn Arabic, saying he is confident he will be accepted because he has already served as an openly gay man.
“No one cared that I was gay,” he said of his year in Kuwait. “What mattered was I did a good job.”
The issue of rank could discourage many from rejoining. Because there are fixed numbers of jobs or ratings in each of the armed services, some people might have to accept lower ranks to re-enlist. And those allowed to keep their former ranks will still find themselves lagging their onetime peers.
“I’ve been out six years, so my peers are way ahead of me in the promotion structure,” said Jarrod Chlapowski, 29, a Korean linguist who left the Army voluntarily in 2005 as a specialist because he hated keeping his sexual orientation a secret. He is now thinking about rejoining.
“It’s going to be a different Army than the one I left,” he said. “And that’s a little intimidating.”
Mr. Almy, 41, Mr. Daniels and another former service member have filed a lawsuit asserting that they were unconstitutionally discharged and should be reinstated, presumably at their former ranks. A former major, Mr. Almy, who was deployed at least four times to the Middle East, was among the highest-ranking members removed under the ban.
But even advocates for gay and lesbian troops say it might not be practical for the military to adopt a blanket policy of allowing all service members discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell” to return to their previous ranks.
“You have to think long and hard from a policy perspective whether you want to put somebody who’s been out 5 or 10 years back into the same billet just because an injustice was done,” said Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, a gay rights advocacy group. Mr. Nicholson, 30, who was discharged in 2002, is considering going to law school and trying to become an officer.
For Mr. Copas, who is 35, age could be a factor in whether he gets back in. An Arabic linguist during his first enlistment, he is thinking of learning Dari or Pashto so he can go to Afghanistan. He also is a musician and has a master’s degree in counseling.
But the Army may consider him too old and demand that he get a waiver. Even as he searches the Web for potential Army jobs, he worries that he will jump through many hoops only to be rejected again.
“It almost feels like I’m getting back in bed with a bad lover,” he said. “I’m still dying to serve. But I don’t know how realistic it is.”
This article “Discharged for Being Gay, Veterans Seek to Re-enlist” originally appeared at The New York Times.
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