"For the first 36 hours we couldn't keep up with all of the e-mails and telephone calls," remembers retired Army chaplain Col. Paul W. Dodd. He's talking about the explosion of outrage that swept the ranks of gay and gay-friendly veterans after Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opined that "homosexual acts" are "immoral" and thus unacceptable in the military.
With his incendiary comments, made during a March 12 interview with the Chicago Tribune's editorial board, Pace went beyond the language of policy to the personal. He insulted the honor of gay soldiers. Dodd--who received the Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal, and numerous other awards in his 21 years of active duty and 10 years in the Army Reserve and National Guard--decided to mount a counteroffensive.
So did half a dozen of his buddies. On March 16, Dodd and six other highly decorated retired military officers came out publicly to protest Pace's remarks as well as his support for the military's ban on openly gay service members.
The magnificent seven--the nickname is hard to resist--aren't the first gay vets to speak out. But their perfectly timed action reflects well on the savvy of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, where all seven officers serve as honorary board members. Based in Washington, D.C., SLDN is dedicated to the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." And with his incautious comment, Pace handed the advocacy group a premium target.
"If he had just said 'don't ask, don't tell' is a good policy, it would have been a nonevent," says Capt. Joan E. Darrah, who served on the staff of the Director of Naval Intelligence and has also been lauded (Legion of Merit awards: three; Navy Commendation medals: three). "But saying we were immoral has energized people."
The seven officers were corresponding among themselves about jointly coming out even before the Pace incident, but they wanted to wait until they could make the greatest impact.
As SLDN communications director Steve Ralls puts it, the Joint Chiefs chairman "created a media opportunity." In the days following Pace's remarks SLDN was flooded with protests from service members both retired and on active duty. "Some of the most poignant messages we received were from families of gays and lesbians serving," Ralls says. "They felt his comments were a slap in the face of their loved ones, some of them in Iraq."
The officers pulled no punches in their statement. "Does General Pace believe we are immoral, or that our service was unacceptable?" it reads. "Does he appreciate the sacrifice and dedication of every patriot in our armed forces, regardless of their sexual orientation? General Pace...owes an apology to our men and women on the frontlines and their families."
Pace chose not to apologize, offering instead the feeble explanation that he should have spoken strictly about "don't ask, don't tell" as a policy--which he claims is working well--and not his personal views on gay people.
The officers form an impressive fighting unit. All seven completed most or all of their service before the 1993 advent of "don't ask, don't tell" and had remained firmly closeted throughout their military careers. Some of them had been married and have children and grandchildren. Now, in the private sector, they serve with distinction as executives, academics, and counselors.
Capt. Robert Dockendorff, 69, a former Navy Reserve supply officer who was stationed on the Cambodian border during the Vietnam War, is a former president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club in San Francisco. Capt. Mike Rankin, 70, served as a Navy medical officer for 24 years, including a 10-year stint as chief of psychiatry at the Oakland VA Medical Center. He is now a professor at George Washington University's medical school. Capt. Sandy Geiselman, 56, served as White House liaison to the secretary of the Navy.
The officers' joint coming-out is part of an ongoing effort in Washington to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," a campaign that seems to be gaining ground despite--or perhaps because of--Pace's loathsome remarks. "Ironically, in giving his 'defense' of the policy, he's moved us closer to repeal than anyone in a long time," says Ralls, who expects hearings on the policy to take place in the House of Representatives later this spring.
And although Democratic representative Marty Meehan of Massachusetts is leaving public office to become chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, the bill he authored and spearheaded--the Military Enhancement Readiness Act, which includes a provision repealing "don't ask, don't tell"--continues to gather steam, in part thanks to Eric Alva, the first U.S. service member injured in the Iraq War, who made headlines by coming out earlier this year.
These seven officers enter the battle as the latest--but surely not the last--reinforcements. "I remember being thrilled when [Col.] Margarethe Cammermeyer came out," Darrah says of the highest-ranking military officer discharged to date for being gay. "You always think you're the only person doing this. Then you start to realize lots of good people are the same way you are. I feel badly for them, but the only people who can fight this fight are people who are no longer in the military."