The last battle

With increasing pressure on Congress to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a group of out veterans unveils a plan to bring conservatives to their side and win the right to serve

BY Greg Hernandez

January 30 2006 12:00 AM ET

On a morning in
2002, Alex Nicholson quietly packed his bags and left his
military base near Tucson for the last time. A friend he
once trusted had outed him to commanding officers, and
Nicholson had been given an honorable discharge under
the government’s ill-fated “don’t ask,
don’t tell” policy. Nicholson—who
was fluent in three languages when he joined the Army
at age 19 and loved the training in intelligence gathering
that he had been receiving—lost his dream of
becoming an interrogator. “Going through that
experience really takes a lot out of you and leaves you
without a feeling of self-worth,” he says.
“For a long time I went back into private life,
not sharing my story at all.”

Nicholson, now
24, is anything but quiet these days. He has organized a
project named Call to Duty that will send a group of LGBT
veterans and their straight allies to about 20
universities during February and March to debate
“don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“Ultimately we’d like to see the policy
repealed because it’s absurd in the post-9/11
world,” Nicholson says. “At this point
it’s time to reevaluate the policy, given the
fact that this is one of the largest military
mobilizations since Vietnam.”

Call to Duty was
still finalizing its schedule as of press time, but it
has secured a February 21 engagement at Harvard
University’s Kennedy School of Government as
well as appearances at the University of Washington;
the University of California, San Diego; and several
military colleges around the country. “Our
target audience is the conservative crowd,”
Nicholson says. “We want to get people who disagree
with us to see us speak and see us challenge the
emotions they have in their heads about gays and
lesbians.”

The tour’s
speakers either were discharged because of their sexuality
or chose not to reenlist because of
“don’t ask, don’t tell.” Their
experiences in the military are broad, including facing
harassment, being kicked out, and finding support
systems—even among commanders. Like Nicholson,
most were aware of the policy when they enlisted but were
determined to try to tolerate it. “I really wanted to
serve my country,” he says. “I looked at
the policy as an extra sacrifice that gay men and
women have to make, and I was willing to do it.”

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