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Coming out in the
line of fire

Coming out in the
line of fire


"Don't ask, don't tell" presumes that battle units would collapse if gay soldiers were allowed to come out. Maybe someone should tell the Pentagon--they're already out, and it's only made their units stronger.

In many ways Army private Karissa Urmanita is a typical U.S. soldier. The Pomona, Calif., native joined the Army to take advantage of its generous college tuition assistance program and to help support her family. She's close with her colleagues (calling them her "battle buddies"), and in her downtime from stocking the combat support hospital at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, she likes to play cards and talk. But Urmanita, now 20, is an atypical soldier in at least one respect--she's an out lesbian.

In direct violation of "don't ask, don't tell," Urmanita was deployed to Iraq in March--two weeks after she came out to her command. And challenging the belief that open homosexuality would undermine unit cohesion and morale in combat, Urmanita says being out has had no negative impact.

"My command seems to act as if I never came out to them," Urmanita writes in an e-mail from Iraq. "Work is still the same, and off time didn't change.

"I'm open about talking to my girlfriend over the phone," she continues. "I know other lesbians, and I've been seen hanging out with them. I'm just in a more comfortable environment because [my colleagues] know it's hard for me to be honest and open to the whole Army."

It's not just hard; it's forbidden. If the whole Army--or, particularly, the Pentagon--were to find out how open Urmanita is about her sexuality, she would be sent back to the United States immediately, like the more than 2,500 gay and lesbian soldiers who've been dismissed since the war began in 2003. In May three linguists specializing in Arabic dialects were discharged under "don't ask, don't tell," bringing the total number of expelled specialists in that key language to 58 and prompting calls in Congress for an explanation.

Fourteen years ago, in debate leading up to the passage of "don't ask, don't tell," congressional witnesses testified that "the presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability." Since then the American public's negative attitudes toward gays and lesbians have softened in many respects, but the Pentagon and a diminishing breed of politicians refuse to evolve.

Case in point: In April, U.S. senator from Arizona and 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain reinforced the military status quo, saying, "Open homosexuality within the military services presents an intolerable risk to morale, cohesion, and discipline."

The Advocate spoke to some openly gay U.S. servicemen and women on active duty, only to find that the "intolerable risk" of their being out actually posed no risk at all.

This spring, Navy petty officer second class Jason Knight, then serving his second Middle East tour in Kuwait, was told he would be discharged after he spoke openly about his sexuality in the military paper Stars and Stripes.

It was a bold move and not his first. Knight had previously come out to his command in 2005, just before the end of his first tour of duty, during which he served in Iraq as a linguist specializing in Hebrew. In response to his admission, he was told that, per "don't ask, don't tell" policy, discharge orders would be prepared, but--somewhat mysteriously--the paperwork failed to reach Knight's file, allowing him to complete his tour and remain in the inactive reserve. A year after he returned home the Navy recalled him for a one-year deployment, and Knight reported for duty--with no plans to return to the closet.

"I wasn't going to go back to that life," says Knight, now 24, via telephone from his home in San Diego. "My coworkers and direct chain of command were all aware of my sexuality, and it really didn't bother them."

It clearly bothered higher-ups, though. Within days of the Stars and Stripes article Knight was told he would be discharged--again--under "don't ask, don't tell," and the article was cited as one of the reasons. Knight's decision to go public was motivated by Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Peter Pace's statement in March that homosexuality is "immoral," and his valor cost him his job.

"I don't have any regrets," says Knight, who officially received his "don't ask, don't tell" discharge in late May, just before his latest military commitment was due to end. He has since joined the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network's national speakers' bureau and has met with congressional staffers. "This is a good opportunity for me to help lift the ban."

As soldiers like Urmanita and Knight are finding out, being gay in the service is often OK--as long as the Pentagon brass don't know. While simply being out is grounds for dismissal under "don't ask, don't tell," and certainly not all commands are accepting of gays and lesbians, in many cases the ban against openly gay service members is not being enforced. Dismissals under "don't ask, don't tell" have dropped significantly since peaking in 2001, with 2006 discharges just barely topping half the number handed down in '01.

Urmanita realizes that telling her story to the press could be grounds for discharge--and the decision to do so hasn't been easy. She had agreed to speak on the record for this story, but when news broke about Knight's discharge--the sailor has been interviewed by numerous media outlets, including Good Morning America--Urmanita reconsidered. She didn't specify why she didn't want to be a source any longer, but the reason seemed clear.

Then she changed her mind again. "I'm sorry if I keep going back and forth on this, but this time I'm sure," she writes in an e-mail. "I will take whatever consequences this article comes with, whether I do get discharged or I am kept in the Army. I want my story out."

Urmanita knew she was a lesbian before she enlisted with the Army in June 2006. Nevertheless, she says, "don't ask, don't tell" didn't concern her--until she discovered that the policy required her to make sacrifices most of her fellow soldiers didn't have to make. Concealing her personal life demanded forfeiture of the very values the Army reinforces from the first day of boot camp: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage. Hiding her sexuality, she says, meant "breaking the seven Army values every single day."

Rumors of her sexuality spread in her company, hastening her decision to come out. "I am not the type to lie or keep secrets from people, so I came clean," she writes. "I want to be open and honest about my sexuality, the same as everyone else."

Today, almost everyone in Urmanita's unit knows she's a lesbian. And the revelation has had a beneficial effect on her relationship with comrades. "Before they knew about me, I was cool with them, but I didn't really talk to them or hang out with them," she explains. "Once they found out, it was like there are no secrets between us anymore. I can actually talk about my life with them."

It was the same for Army sergeant Darren Manzella, currently on his second deployment to the Middle East, when he came out to his unit in 2006. "For the most part, my peers have been supportive--or at the very least, indifferent--toward me," he says by phone from his home in Austin, where he was on leave from his station in Kuwait. The only change he's noticed is that closeted soldiers sometimes avoid him, "as if talking to me would automatically out them."

Manzella, now 29, joined the Army in 2002. He came under attack two years later while helping a field surgeon treat wounded soldiers in Iraq. In recognition of the valor he demonstrated while administering aid under fire he was awarded the Combat Medical Badge.

Manzella returned to the United States in March 2005 at the completion of his first tour, and in the summer of 2006 he began receiving e-mails and phone calls from an anonymous individual who claimed to be a fellow soldier and who warned that an investigation into Manzella's sexuality was under way. To head off what he expected to be a painful inquiry and discharge, Manzella came out to his supervisors that August. In response, an official investigation into his sexual orientation was launched, but despite his own admission that he's gay, which is by itself enough to trigger a discharge, Manzella's command found no compelling evidence of his homosexuality and took no action.

Yet after he was sent to Iraq for a second tour in October 2006, Manzella was quickly moved to Kuwait to serve in a different section of his battalion. His superiors refused to give him a reason, but Manzella assumes the transfer was the Army's way of responding to his coming-out. Still, he was not discharged, and he continues to be open about being gay.

Indeed, prior to his current deployment, Manzella introduced his military peers to his boyfriend. "There was some uncomfortable feelings among some of the males," he says. "But the majority showed no hostility or ill feelings." He remains close with a number of friends from his original section, who continue to be "very supportive."

But like Urmanita, Manzella knows that publicly discussing his story could mean trouble. "It's worth it to me," he says. "I hope that putting my name to this story will make it possible for people to relate to this issue."

Many service members who are out within their units can't go public in a larger sense for fear of severing financial ties to the military. One sailor tells The Advocate that while he's happy to be out to his peers, he can't allow his name to be used in this article because he would have to repay all the college tuition reimbursements he's received from the military if he were discharged.

"I've become even closer to most people than I was before being out, so I guess it's been lots better," he writes in an e-mail from his current station on a U.S. aircraft carrier. In fact, he says, he "would've come out sooner" had he known how well his colleagues would take the news (though he has not told his commander).

An intelligence analyst, the sailor joined the Navy six years ago to see the world and to contribute to something bigger than himself, and he recently reenlisted for another four years of service.

"Plain and simple, we, as gay Americans, just want to serve, defend, and be a part of something that's been around longer than all of us and will be around for many years after us," he writes of his desire to be in the military. But he is obviously frustrated by "don't ask, don't tell"--an outdated and discriminatory policy if ever there were one.

"Here's some irony," he writes in an e-mail. "As I sit here and type this message, I am also working on a classified briefing concerning terrorists who we are helping to track down. How funny is it that I'm here trying to help inform people of bad guys who are trying to kill innocents of their own country as well as many Americans, but if I was found out to be gay I'd be yanked out of here so fast?" Indeed. Under "don't ask, don't tell," he'd be the bad guy.

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