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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
bothered higher-ups, though. Within days of the Stars and
Stripes article Knight was told he would be
"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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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
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."
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).
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.
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