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111th CONGRESS: GAYS IN THE MILITARY

For some, 'a sigh of relief'

Gay former service members praise the Senate's repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell.'

December 19, 2010|Alexandra Zavis and Tony Perry

The day before the Senate voted to clear the way for gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military, Julianne Sohn came across her old Marine Corps uniforms in a closet at her parents' home in Fullerton.

"I kept them because I thought I would get to wear them again," said Sohn, a 34-year-old Los Angeles police officer who was forced to resign from the Marines at the rank of captain under the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The historic vote came too late for Sohn. Her parents are getting older, she recently had knee surgery and she is starting a new job Monday in San Francisco. But she hoped the Senate's action would allow those currently serving in silence to "finally breathe a sigh of relief."

"It is hard to believe that it's actually happening," said Sohn, who was up at 6 a.m. Saturday watching the proceedings on television and swapping messages on Facebook with friends in the Senate gallery. "We've been disappointed so many times with this issue."

When it became clear the Senate would vote against the ban, Sohn updated her Facebook status: "It's raining in southern California but it's a beautiful day."

"It's fricking amazing," she said.

In the Hollywood Hills, Tom Carpenter, 62, a former Marine fighter pilot who served in the 1970s, laughed and cried and hugged his husband, Art Andrade.

"I'm actually going to a Christmas party tonight," said Carpenter, "and I have a magnum of Champagne that was a gift for the wedding ... and we're going to open that sucker."

Carpenter, who comes from a family with a tradition of military service dating back to the Revolutionary War, thought that he would make a career in the Marine Corps. But when he fell in love with another Marine pilot, he decided he "couldn't continue living a lie" and left the military as a captain.

A longtime board member of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, Carpenter has been campaigning to allow gay men and women to serve openly since the policy was enacted 17 years ago.

"I think we're going to look back and say, 'What's the big deal?' " he said. "The guys I flew with, many of them knew [I am gay] and they were cool with it, even in the '70s."

A survey conducted by the Pentagon found that 70% of current service members said the effects of reversing the ban would be "equally mixed, positive or nonexistent." There were more reservations among members serving in combat, particularly Marines whose commandants have been strong opponents of reversing the policy.

In downtown Oceanside, where Marines from Camp Pendleton often spend their off-duty hours, many members worried that changing the policy would disrupt camaraderie among infantry troops at a time when they are fighting two wars.

"We don't need distractions like this, not now," said Lance Cpl. John Mars, 28, of Albuquerque, who was at a burger stand.

Higher-ranking active-duty Marines were more guarded in their comments.

"I'll support any decision made by the president and the commandant of the Marine Corps -- let's leave it at that," said a gunnery sergeant who has completed eight overseas deployments. He did not give his name, saying that the command had warned Marines not to speak publicly about such a controversial subject.

Sgt. Jose Montoya, 28, of Los Angeles said, "Personally, I have no problem with gays. But we live very close, every day; it's going to cause problems."

Supporters of reversing the policy say such fears are exaggerated.

"Nobody is going to risk their careers by doing something stupid, gay or straight," said a gay sailor, who did not want to be identified with the ban still in place.

For Becky Kanis, the decision to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" is about "restoring integrity and honor" to the military.

Kanis, the founding chairwoman of Knights Out, an alliance of West Point graduates and staff that advocates for gay service members, came under investigation while at the academy and had to lie about her sexual orientation. She went on to serve nine years in the Army Signal Corps, including with special operations forces, rising to the rank of captain. She left in 2000.

"I got involved in a serious relationship and didn't want to lie about that to anybody," she said.

Sohn thought she could adhere to the policy, but found it increasingly stressful to have to hide her personal life from her fellow Marines.

She said the policy hurt not only service members, but also their families. When Sohn deployed to Iraq in 2005, she could not list her partner as next of kin. "My girlfriend at the time, she was out. So for her, dating me was going back into the closet," she said.

In 2006, she decided to speak out about her experiences serving under "don't ask, don't tell." She was later given the choice of going before an administrative board or resigning her commission. Reluctantly, she resigned.

The challenge now, she said, is to implement the change. "Now the real hard work begins."

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

tony.perry@latimes.com

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