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Military Freedom Day, 20 September 2011


Danny Ingram
President, American Veterans For Equal Rights

Here in Atlanta,  we held a Retreat Ceremony to mark the end of the last day of the nearly 100 year old policy that denied lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans the right to serve in the United States Armed forces. The event was held at the small veterans' marker and flagpole that AVER has adopted and used as the site of our annual Memorial Day ceremonies. It is difficult for me to convey all the powerful emotions that we experienced last night. For the first time in my life, my brother came to one of my events. Many of you will probably understand how important and moving that was to me. My brother and I are not that close. We have never discussed the gay issue. It touched me deeper than I can express that he was there. My former commander, the man who had the task of processing my discharge, was also there, and he spoke. He ended by saying, "If the situation was tough and I was under heavy fire, there is no one I would rather have in my foxhole fighting beside me than Sergeant Ingram".

The Atlanta Freedom Band played Taps, Retreat, and then the national anthem as I lowered the flag. I had requested a long drum roll. I got it. Colonel Arlene Ackerman, the highest ranking female member of AVER, gave the commands. As customary, I lowered the flag during the anthem, and in the following silence we removed the flag from its halyards, folded it, and presented it to LTC Joe Staiano who donated the flag last Memorial Day in memory of his son Dr. Anthony Staiano, USN. I feel comfortable in claiming that the honor guard who folded the flag was the the most diverse in US history. We were male and female, Black, White, and Latino, Gay, Straight, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender, with vets representing World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the Global War on Terror. The silence was powerful, and the following singing of "We Will Never Die" by the 30 member OurSong LGBT chorus was beautiful and fitting.

Civil Rights legend and Congressman John Lewis had been scheduled to speak but was instead at the bedside of his wife at Emory University. He did send a staff member and a beautiful letter. In the letter he said,

"As a Member of Congress, as a citizen, and as your brother I salute you. I applaud you for getting in the way, for getting into what I call 'good trouble.' This victory is the culmination of your efforts and it stands as an honor to the great sacrifice made by you, your loved ones, and those who came before you but did not live to see this day. As I said on the floor of the House of Representatives 'in the battlefield it does not matter who you love, only the flag that you serve.' So let us continue to look towards our flag and honor it by continuing to fight for justice and equality. Let us join hands and work together in forming the Beloved Community. Remember that we are all one people, one family, and we live together in this one house, the American House."

Jack Strouss, one of our World War II veterans, who grew up only a few blocks from the site of our ceremony, spoke wearing his uniform. He received two standing ovations, and during my commander's speech later, the Colonel stopped and made a special gesture of saluting Jack. All around, it was a wonderful celebration of love and respect.

I ended my speech with the following words:

"America's greatness does not lie in our wealth or in our power. Nor can our greatness be measured by our GDP or our credit rating. America's greatness lies in our enduring dedication to the dream of liberty and justice for all, and our devotion to one united society where every citizen shares equal rights, equal respect, and equal responsibility. So as the sun rises tomorrow on our nation forever changed, let there be be no doubt in your mind or in your heart, that its rays shine down on a United States of America greater than we have ever been before."

In preparing for this event, and indeed this day, I have been thinking a lot about Chuck Schoen, one of AVER's founders, who I met in Palm Springs earlier this year. What happened to Chuck, a veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, being discharged less than honorably from the United States Navy just shy of retirement, after working his way up from enlisted to officer, just for the company he chose to keep, is so extremely unjust that it is hard to believe that our nation and the guardians of our freedom could ever act in such a deplorable way. I shared this story with the crowd last night and saw their shocked reaction when they realized there would be no happy ending to Chuck's story. I couldn't give them one. All I could say was "What was done to Chuck will not be done to anyone else, ever again".

Today is Chuck's victory, along with all the rest of us who have worked so hard to end this injustice. It is a victory for the United States military, because no matter how hard you attempt to gloss over the issue with stories of "honoring diversity", eventually it becomes painfully apparent that you just can't defend liberty if you don't honor it. The defenders of freedom have taken a step closer to being the representatives of freedom. And America, once again bursting at the seams to evolve, has taken a further step in the long process to become more truly American. Today, the 20th day of September, 2011, America is more free than we were yesterday.

Despite the individuals who cling desperately to any number of excuses to justify their unwillingness to be generous with the freedom they inherited for no better reason then their birth, America could not stop its ongoing process of equality. Like those of us who served in the armed forces, every elected official in the United States takes some version of an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America." Next fall, when politicians are running for office, each of us should be sure to ask them what they think about same-gender marriage. And if they oppose it, we should ask them how they justify that position with the 14th Amendment. Anyone who has taken an oath to defend the Constitution and opposes full equality for LGBT Americans has already broken their oath.

Finally, where the rubber hits the road, let us today remember all the men and women serving overseas on the battlefields of America's war on terror. Most of our nation remains oblivious to the the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there are already grossly shameful calls to cut benefits to the men and women honoring their commitments to our nation with dedication and courage. We must do everything in our power to stop those voices calling for cuts to their benefits. Our service members have honored their side of the bargain. We must honor ours. For those people today marks a simple and practical change. No American soldier, no Marine, no Coast Guardsman, sailor, nor airman, will ever again die in battle because the medic or corpsman who could have saved his or her life was kicked out of the military for being gay. That is the least that we can do for them.

Danny Ingram, Triumphant National President
American Veterans for Equal Rights

 2011 Gay Military Signal