Why Return to the Military After Being Thrown Out?

BY Julie Bolcer

September 22 2011 4:00 AM ET

The end of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy brings
liberation for many gay and lesbian soldiers who finally feel comfortable
enough to come out to colleagues and country. Their choice to be open on the
job is not the only time-sensitive decision following repeal, however, as
thousands of service members discharged under two decades of the discriminatory
policy consider whether and why to reenlist.

“Now is the time to make that decision, especially for those
who have been kicked out,” said Danny Hernandez, a former lance corporal in the
Marine Corps discharged in 2010. “I think everybody will be different about how
they feel about it, but now is the time to show that we are hundreds of
thousands of people who have served our country who want justice, whether
that’s a line changed on paperwork or wearing a uniform again.”

Despite career delays, jolted personal lives, and in some
cases, life-threatening despair over their discharge, former members of the
military expressed in interviews an eagerness to reenlist that superseded any
bitterness or hardships. They said the pull of service, the uniqueness of the
work and lifestyle, and the desire to help the armed forces transition into an
era without the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy motivated their decision to join
the estimated 66,000 gay and lesbian people currently serving in the military,
out or not.

Hernandez, 24, expected to become an officer before two ROTC
colleagues at Texas A&M University reported his sexual orientation to
superiors during his senior year for reasons that remain unknown. He thought he
could survive the accusation and graduated with plans for a military career,
until he learned about his discharge two months after it became official, along
with an unexpected bill for thousands of dollars in student loans.

“I’m angry with the higher-ups at my unit that I felt were a
little unprofessional and didn’t communicate with me,” he said. “There was no
follow-up. I’ve yet to hear one word. I was in limbo for so many months.”

Hernandez said he started talking to a recruiter about
returning as an officer two months ago, although defense cutbacks and fulfilled
recruitment quotas mean there are no guarantees. Still, he feels drawn by what
the military means to him and his family, including cousins and a younger
brother in the Marine Corps who thought the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was
“awful.”

“I have a huge respect for everything the military’s given
me and my family,” he said. “It’s a huge part of who we are as first-generation
Americans, college graduates, and members of the military. It’s just the
lifestyle we live.”

Maj. Mike Almy, one of the highest-ranking service members
to be discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” knows the feeling of service in
the blood. Born into a military family, he never found the same level of career
satisfaction as a defense contractor after his discharge from the Air Force in
2006.

“I didn’t have to think a lot about it at all,” he said.
“Growing up I always knew I was going to be in the military in some capacity or
another. It sounds clichéd, but it’s really been my calling, what I’ve really
enjoyed.”

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