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An Interview with

Col. James McDonough (Ret.)
Director of the NY State Division of Veterans Affairs

By Denny Meyer

Col. (Ret.) James McDonough was appointed as the Director of the New York State Division of Veterans’ Affairs, the day after Veterans' Day last November.

In an initial brief phone conversation, he was effusive in stating his personal view that the time was right for gay patriotic volunteers to be integrated into our American armed forces. In the subsequent scheduled interview several weeks later, the response to nearly all questions was carefully nuanced to be "all inclusive." From a military standpoint, that is the way it should be; we very much look forward to the day when it is truly inclusive of all Americans.

Colonel McDonough, married with three children, spent twenty six years serving in the United States Army.

From Officer's Candidate School, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1982. He began his career as an Air Defense Artillery Officer, commanding PATRIOT weapons systems in Germany and subsequently serving as both Executive Officer and Operations officer for a PATRIOT battalion stationed on the Korean Peninsula. He served as a Battalion Commander at Ft. Bliss, Texas, and participated in Operation Southern Watch in the mid-1990s. During OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM, he served as the Senior Operations Officer for all PATRIOT forces deployed throughout the middle east.

In graduate school, he trained as a Communications Strategist which led to his becoming a speech writer at the Pentagon for the Secretary of The Army during the Clinton Administration. In that capacity on the Secretary’s personal staff, he was directly involved in developing expanding military roles for women as our armed forces followed through on Presidential directives. At that time, Jim McDonough was rightly considered as one of those capable of thoroughly and forthrightly "getting the job done." He was quite clear and confident in his belief that, when a new policy is set, his counterparts will similarly straightforwardly integrate openly gay personnel into our military forces.

When asked how our military might go about integrating gay personnel, he related the process that took place when he helped to facilitate the implementation of expanded roles for women while he was at the Pentagon.

At the time, "the Army was less agile in its ability to change." There was reluctance, at the unit level, to accept what was then a handful of women in specialized areas that had been considered male roles in the culture of the Army. He and his counterparts, who were committed to creating greater opportunities for women, had to promulgate policies allowing access for women in wider areas. And that then led to more women joining the armed forces for the expanded opportunities available to them. Thus, the process was to overcome inertia and then build upon the evoked momentum.

At about the same time, in the mid 90s, the Dept. of Defense adopted the mandated principals of Don't Ask Don't Tell and had to develop procedures and rules to implement the policy. Once again, "there was a job to do and get done." As with expanding the roles of women, "there had to be a recognition that change was occurring and that military leaders were responsible for adapting to those changes to carry out policy."

Col. McDonough feels that his experience prepares him to embrace human rights efforts which ensure equality for all (this was as we spoke just after the Martin Luther King Day holiday). In working to implement expanded opportunities for women, as well as in having to implement the DADT policy, he found that it was his role to ensure that all personnel were treated with respect. Thus, when one of his NCOs out-processed under the Army’s new homosexuality policy, Col. McDonough felt it was his responsibility to "do the right thing" and ensure that his Sergeant "had his rights represented and that he was treated with dignity and respect." That, he felt, was the only proper way to carry out the policy that it was his duty to follow.

Are we now ready to integrate gay volunteers?

"It's all about having respect for everyone," he said.

"If we were able to put through a policy integrating women, we can put through a policy for gay personnel."

He believes that gay military personnel can be integrated just as well, because there is a responsibility that the leadership has to follow orders in accordance with their oath of office. "That is not an oath of personal opinion; it's to do the job, be accountable, and to recognize one's responsibility for the privilege of serving alongside Americans regardless of sexuality, religion, race, or any other difference," He said. For those who can't or wont, "there's plenty of others who can replace them." Asked if we are ready for such a change, he said, "Yes, because it is a non-issue now for those currently serving. It is all about service, and equality is a part of that," he insisted. "In the past, we were ready to adapt to desegregation (in 1948) and later to expand roles for women. Our armed forces are actually leaders in this," he explained.

In short, Col. McDonough spent the most significant part of his military career taking care of Soldiers and their Families, all-the-while facilitating change and transition.

He faithfully carried out his responsibility without question. But, it was his own humanity that propelled him to try to ensure that policies protected the dignity of each service member and the respect that they deserved as equals in the American tradition.

James McDonough regards his current civilian position as he did military assignments; i.e. to be carried out to the best of his ability. Specifically, he said that it is his goal to represent Veterans’ interests, and to ensure equal treatment of all Veterans. He intends to advocate the best care possible for all Veterans, regardless of age or service era. His goals include expanding educational benefits and ensuring that veterans become aware of these benefits; implementing a 'Gold Star Annuity' for parents who have lost children in service to their country; expanding employment opportunities, particularly for disabled Vets, via partnership programs; and assisting returning Veterans in all areas of resettlement.

Asked about older Vets, he immediately emphasized that, "We cannot afford to overlook anyone. The needs of returning Veterans are urgent; but we cannot repeat the error of overlooking those who have returned before. I will not pick and choose between generations; I have to put forth the effort to care for all generations of Veterans. We cannot leave anyone behind." To that end, he is working to have Veterans’ counselors across the state to improve and expand outreach to include all gay, senior, and other Veterans who are potentially isolated and unaware of their benefits eligibility.

Asked what he might do for gay Veterans, in his new role directing Veterans Affairs in New York State, he was emphatic about inclusiveness. "A Vet is a Vet, all are equal; there is only one kind of Vet and that is one who has earned certain rights and privileges for having honorably served our country" There are no other criteria for deserving benefits, as far as he is concerned, regardless of what may be in the minds of others who do not understand the sacrifice of those who have served.

©  2008  Gay Military Signal