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"This is done"

Danny Ingram
President of American Veterans For Equal Rights

"This is done".  With those words President Barack H. Obama sat down the last pen that he used to sign into law the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010" on Wednesday, December 22, 2010, at 9:36 AM.  Actually watching in person as the Commander In Chief of the United States Armed Forces rolled his pen across the paper did little to reassure me that the law that we had been fighting for almost 20 years had finally been overturned.  I was still as numb and unbelieving as anyone else.  It had happened so quickly.  We had fought and struggled for so long, it just didn't seem real that we had finally won.  Surely, the powers that stood against us were just playing another game.  Somehow, someone was going to come running in at the last minute shouting that the decision had been reversed.  A mistake had been made.  A technicality had been overlooked.  The process would have to be repeated.  But that did not happen.  "This is done."  We have won. 

The inspirational words that our President used to conclude his speech were nothing new.  "Out of many we are one."  "We are a nation that believes that all men and women are created equal".  Well, of course we do.  We all know that.  We've known it for years.  We've recited it every time we said the Pledge of Allegiance.  But there is now one vast difference.  There is one dawning, newly awakening realization.  Those are no longer just words for someone else.  For the first time those words apply to me, to "us".  For the first time in my life, I am one of the "many".  I am one of the "all".  We may not have known it, but that's what we have been fighting for these many years, not just to be allowed to serve in the military, but to be among the "all", to claim our part of the American promise.  To be acknowledged, affirmed, so that when we say "with Liberty and Justice for all", we are among the "all". 

We have been legitimized.  "Civil rights" are our rights, too.  The "congratulations" that I continue to hear from people are not just about winning one fight, they are an expression of welcome to the "all".  That is what I feel today.  I feel it when I talk openly about who I am to people all around me as if, for the first time in my life, I, too, am a valued American like all other Americans.  If the President said it, then it must be true.  I feel it in the air we breathe.  For the first time in my life something has changed in a dramatic way.  People who oppose us are no longer justified in doing so.  Now they are “un”-patriotic.  They are bad.  With the rolling of the pen across the paper, I am not just welcome to serve in the military.  With the rolling of the pen, a profound change has taken place in my life, and in my country.  There is still very, very much work to be done.  Our nation will not live up to its promise of liberty until every single citizen shares the same rights and responsibilities as every other citizen.  And that is yet a long time away.  But today, with the rolling of the pen, I feel something for the first time since I understood what it means.  Today, for the first time, I AM FREE. 

I was among the first to be discharged under DADT in 1994.  In the closing weeks of December 2010, as the Senate voted for repeal and I was among those present when the President signed the bill, incredibly, everything came full circle for me.

A few weeks ago I was asked to play taps for a military funeral.  One of our members had lost his son to suicide.  It was a heartbreaking tragedy.  The son had served in the Navy, so he, too, was a veteran.  I told my friend that I would be honored to play taps for his son.  He told me that his ex-wife had invited some other veterans to attend the service, so I would not be the only one in uniform. 

We gathered at the church for the funeral, which would be followed by the internment at a veterans’ cemetery north of Atlanta.  After the service began I saw the other two men in uniform, and I was taken aback.  I recognized the man in the Army uniform.  He was the man who had discharged me from the Army almost 18 years ago.  A brief reception followed the funeral service, so I had an opportunity to talk to retired Colonel Kelly R. Jimenez before we left for the cemetery.  He had been a Major at the time.  He recognized me as one of his former soldiers, but evidently did not remember the circumstances, since he asked me if I was “still in”.  I told him that I was not, and I asked if I might have a one of his cards so that I could contact him later.

We drove to the cemetery, which was located in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.  The cemetery was breathtaking, located on a beautiful hilltop, and it was a clear, sunny day.  We were guided to the internment site.  I stood apart from the other mourners in order to play taps.  When Colonel Jimenez arrived, he stood next to me, and when the order was given he saluted as I played taps.  There we were, two soldiers, in uniform, serving together again.  It was an incredible moment of closure for me.  I felt we had come full circle.  He whispered to me afterwards “good job”. 

The next day I sent an email to the Colonel to remind him of the circumstances for which he probably remembered me.  I didn’t know if he would respond.  It was several days, in fact, before he did respond.  I didn’t receive the letter until after I had returned from the signing ceremony in Washington DC.  What follows is his letter to me.  With the great honor of watching President Obama sign the Repeal into law, with shaking his hand and speaking to him, nothing has touched my heart as deeply or meant more to me than this letter.  I know you will understand why it moved me so very much when you read it.  Nothing could ever mean more:

The Colonel’s Letter

Dear SGT Ingram or better yet, Dear Danny,

I waited a little bit before responding to this inspiring E-mail message in the hopes to be able to say "CONGRATULATIONS" for a well deserved victory. You were bound and determined to reach this day and here it is. Moreover, you never lost sight of your objective(s) and even though you lost some significant battles, you won the war. I'm very proud of you and your achievements.

Danny, I want you to know that I never forgot you, nor the reason as to why you were separated/discharged from the USA. Please know that a Commander that cares for his soldiers never forgets his best enlisted member. I'm not telling you this to make you or me feel better, I'm just stating the fact; that is, you were our best 1015th Heavy Maintenance (DS) Company Enlisted Soldier.

It's not easy to be a Commander as you probably know because of your current leadership position; as a matter of fact it's a lonely position saturated of big responsibilities and at the end of the day you are the one that has to make the final decision and then live with the consequences of such decision. My decision concerning your discharge at that time was first to treat you with the respect and dignity that my best soldier deserved and then process your chapter for the right reasons and not for the wrong perceptions of narrow minded individuals that wanted to make an example of you. You need to know that... yes, it was very difficult to process your paperwork because there were some senior grade officers that wanted to make an example of you, but I refused to follow their advice and my chain of command (particularly COL Helmly at that time and nowadays former MG Helmly) backed me up and I was able to follow the regulation without placing any bias into the process. Another confession that I have to make to you is that I certainly forgot the story that I told you, but certainly sounds like something I would say to someone that I truly appreciate and respect for his moral convictions. Although it's 17 years after the fact I hereby fully authorize you my dear friend to utilize in all confidence my name whenever you feel that the telling of the story is fitting to the message you are trying to convey for your audience better perception.

I share your thoughts about that DADT is really and truly unconstitutional, and that no soldier should ever die on the battlefield because the medic who could have saved his life was kicked out of the military for "loving the wrong person"... I differ on this one simply because there is no such thing as loving the wrong person. When we love someone there is no conditions to that love we freely and willingly offer, just like there is no wrong God as long it's a God of love and compassion.

As to our encounter, where we met once again wearing our military uniforms next to each other, I considered that not a coincidence but a divine act and a true honor. Only the Good Lord could have brought us together in such a tragic moment, but at the same time so significant and inspiring.

Danny, I also thank you for being a soldier among soldiers, one that through the times never surrender his ideals and finally achieved "mission accomplishment" in spite of the great frustrations and possible humiliations inflicted by those narrow minded individuals that allege with one side of their mouth in serving our country, but in reality they are simply serving their own very agenda(s). You have done it with true love for this country and for this reason today you can see the fruits of your hard labor. May God also bless you until the last of your days!

Stay in touch and maybe how about lunch sometime by the end of January of the new year? Let me know.


COL(R) Kelly R. Jiménez

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