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A Veterans Day Salute

by Rhonda K. Davis,
U.S. Navy Veteran

 Despite being discharged for “homosexual admission” in July of this year, I am proud of the 10 years of active duty and 2 years of reserve service I gave this country.  In return for my commitment, the U.S. Navy gave me excellent training and education, travel to all corners of the world, and bullets on my broadcaster’s resume that would even make Katie Couric proud.  The American military offers THE best opportunities a person could ever hope for.  The Navy was my ticket out of the rural South and into the news anchor seat at a TV station in exotic Tokyo , Japan .  What the Armed Forces did for me, it can do for anyone who’s stuck in a dead-end job, too poor to go to college.

 But this year I spent Veterans Day feeling sad for the thousands and thousands of young kids who won’t be able to enjoy the travel I have enjoyed and who won’t be able to obtain the same kind of training and education I received … not because they’re unfit for the military, but because they’re openly gay; young people like the students of Vassar College who refuse to accept “don’t ask, don’t tell” as a condition of service.

On November 3, 2006, more than 50 students from Vassar made the trip from Poughkeepsie , New York to Manhattan to join students from Columbia University and Soulforce in demonstrating against the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.  I accompanied 12 of them into the military recruiting station at Times Square and watched as they tried to enlist, and were all turned away for being gay, lesbian, or bisexual.  These are young people who were willing to give their lives to their country; they were willing to give up the many personal freedoms service members must sacrifice, but they were NOT willing to sacrifice their own dignity.  They were NOT willing to live a life of secrecy and deceit.  And why should they have to?  These people are from a generation that is more accepting of homosexuality, not like my generation where homosexuals had to accept the closet as their only option.  These students are openly gay to their friends, family, professors, and fellow students; why should they have to go into the closet – one they’ve never had to be in -- in order to be accepted into the United States military?

 While a crowd of such students quietly protested outside the recruiters’ door with duct tape on their mouths and signs in their hands that read, “Right to Serve,” those of us inside had a unique opportunity to talk to recruiters from the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps about DADT.  We sat inside the tiny, stuffy recruiting station talking for nearly two hours, and although the recruiters’ hands were tied by the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, all was not a lost cause that day.  By the end of our discussion, the recruiters’ eyes were opened to the oppression the policy means for GLBT service members. 

 One strapping, young Marine recruiter said to us, “I wouldn’t have a problem serving with gays, but I can’t process you in because of this policy.  This isn’t my policy, but I have to enforce it.”  So I took the opportunity to ask him the age-old question about showers – which seems to be the backbone (for at least some people) of why gays aren’t allowed to openly serve.  “Would you have a problem sharing living quarters and having to shower with an openly gay man?” I asked. 

 He said, “No, of course not.  I don’t care if a guy is gay, as long as he’s a good Marine.  I’m straight; I have a wife; that’s my life.  If someone else is different, that’s their life, and I don’t have a problem with that, so long as he doesn’t have a problem with me being straight.” 

 And that, I believe, sums up America ’s new attitude about gays in the military.  “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is not what the majority of service members want; it’s not what the majority of the American public wants, and it’s not what the students of Vassar College want.  They simply want to join the military.  They want, and deserve, the right to see the world, to proudly wear the military uniform … to serve this country… to retire, one day, as veterans … to be celebrated on Veterans Day for their commitment and hard work.

Photos by Davina Pardo, from the documentary Ask Not.  The behind-the-scenes story of Soulforce’s Right to Serve campaign in 30 US cities is told in Ask Not, a documentary about “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” co-produced by Persistent Visions and ITVS. Ask Not http://www.asknotfilm.com
Persistent Visions http://persistent-visions.com  ITVS http://www.itvs.org

 Six Vassar students (Curt, Clare, Julia, Leslie, David, and Pete) were arrested on November 3rd – ironically a little more than a week before Veterans Day -- because they refused to leave the recruiter station in Times Square until they were processed into the military. The rest of the duct-taped young people kept vigil outside the station, holding their signs with cold hands, until 5:00 PM to show passersby that the youth of today does NOT accept “don’t ask, don’t tell” as the way things must be.  The next day, the six who were arrested were released from custody and no charges were pressed. 

 To all these students, and to the hundreds like them standing in the cold outside locked recruiter stations, I salute you for the service you are doing right now for this country. Because you took a stand on an issue you believe in, because you continue to challenge this antiquated, prejudicial military law … I pay tribute to you, and I hope some day you’ll have the freedom and liberty to defend this country’s freedom and liberty.

Petty Officer 1st Class Rhonda K. Davis,
U.S Navy Veteran