HRC Blog

Discharging Decorated Sailors under DADT—“Stories from the Frontlines”

Servicemembers Legal Defense Network recently launched “Stories from the Frontlines: Letters to President Barack Obama” — a new media campaign to underscore the urgent need for congressional action and presidential leadership at this critical point in the fight to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Every weekday as we approach the markup of the Defense Authorization bill in the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, a coalition of voices supporting repeal will share an open letter to the President from a person impacted by this discriminatory law. We ask that you forward and post these personal stories. Today’s letter comes from Former U.S. Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Jenny Kopfstein:

May 24, 2010 Dear Mr. President, October 12, 2000. It was the day the USS COLE was attacked -- a suicide bomber struck while the ship was harbored and refueling in a Yemeni port. Seventeen American sailors were killed, and 39 were injured. In the hours that followed – onboard the USS SHILOH also docked in an overseas port – we were put on alert. My Captain chose me to serve as the Officer of the Deck. We were ordered to put to sea immediately and I was to coordinate the underway. Similarly – on September 11, 2001 – our ship was immediately ordered to sea. We fully expected that we were going to war. We ended up being assigned to protect the west coast from any potential attack. During these emergencies, I was an open lesbian serving my country. In a state of alert, no one cared a bit about my sexual orientation, even though they knew about it. The sailors who worked for me looked to me for leadership, and the officers I worked for looked to me for performance. Years before, when studying at the Naval Academy, my peers and I learned about honor and integrity. The Academy places a special emphasis on these values. On the very first day, they give you uniforms, shoe polish and Brasso, and begin teaching you about the Academy’s Honor Concept. The Honor Concept starts out, “Midshipmen are persons of integrity: they do not lie, cheat, or steal.” When I graduated from the Naval Academy, I became a Surface Warfare Officer and received orders to the cruiser USS SHILOH. I was excited to serve on a combatant ship. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) made it difficult to have normal conversations with my shipmates. If I said I had a dog, someone might ask, “Who takes care of him when you’re at sea?” Answering the simplest questions can get you kicked out. The crew of my ship was my extended family. Keeping parts of my life secret and separate from them is an unnecessary burden, and no American sailor or soldier should be forced to bear it. Feeling deeply conflicted between the requirements of DADT and the Navy’s Core Values, I wrote my Captain and told him I was a lesbian. I was being forced to lie on a daily basis by DADT. I did not want to get out of the Navy, and I said so in my letter. I wanted to stay and serve honorably, and to maintain my integrity by not lying about who I was. After I wrote the letter, I continued to do my job on the ship to the best of my ability. We went on a six-month deployment to the Middle East. I qualified as Officer of the Deck, and was chosen to be the Officer of the Deck during General Quarters -- a great honor. I also earned my Surface Warfare Officer pin. During my pinning ceremony, the Captain removed his own pin -- off the chest of his uniform -- and pinned it on mine. That was one of my proudest moments. Later, the Captain personally chose me to represent the ship in a ship-handling competition. I was the only officer chosen to compete, and my orientation was known to my shipmates. My discharge investigation was well underway. Not one person griped because I was the one chosen. I showed the Admiral my ship-driving skills, and won the competition. My Captain wrote in my Fitness Report in 2002 that my “sexual orientation has not disrupted good order and discipline onboard USS SHILOH.” Both of my Captains testified at my DADT discharge hearing to say they were opposed to the Navy kicking me out. If not for DADT, I would still be serving today. Mr. President, help Congress repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” now. We cannot afford any delay. With respect, Former Lieutenant Junior Grade Jenny Kopfstein United States Navy

HRC joins with our allies in urging the President to include DADT repeal in the Administration’s defense budget recommendations, but also to voice his support as we work to muster the 15 critical votes needed on the Senate Armed Services Committee to include repeal. The Defense Authorization bill represents the best legislative vehicle to bring repeal to the president’s desk. It also was the same vehicle used to pass DADT in 1993. Standing together, we are building the momentum we need to secure the votes.

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