Earlier this year, President Barack Obama called on Congress to repeal the U.S. military's policy of expelling openly gay service members. Since then, some of the nation's top military officials and commanders have voiced support for changing the policy pending a thorough review process. In the first of a two-part report, VOA examines the issue from the perspective of those who have served in the armed forces.
In 2002, David Hall was an Air Force sergeant studying to be an officer, pursuing his dream of becoming a military pilot. But he had a closely-guarded secret. Hall is gay. He recalls the day his career ended, the day he received a summons from his commander.
"Unfortunately we are going to have to disenroll [expel] you from the Air Force [officers program] due to homosexual conduct'. I was ranked number one in my class. I had just received my pilot slot a few months before that. And that ended it, just like that. What one person said [about me] ended my career, my dream of flying planes," he said.
More than 13,000 gay and lesbian service members have been discharged from the U.S. armed forces since 1993. That was the year President Bill Clinton signed a bill revising the military's outright ban on homosexuals.
The law, called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", stipulates that gays and lesbians can serve, but only if their sexual orientation is secret. Any admission -- or substantiated accusation by someone else -- can lead to discharge.
Retired Navy Captain Joan Darrah, a lesbian, describes the constant fear of exposure she endured during 29 years in the military. "I went to work each day literally wondering if that would be the last day of my career," she stated. "A simple comment -- like 'my partner and I went to the movies this weekend' -- could have been the end of my career."
Gay service members must hide their partners.
Unlike their heterosexual peers, gay and lesbian soldiers go to war without a parting embrace from a loved one, and return from deployments pretending there is no one to publicly welcome them home. While on duty, they dare not display a picture of a partner.
The military stresses personal integrity and honor, yet compels gay personnel to shield the truth. When allegations of homosexuality surfaced against Coast Guard Academy cadet Bronwen Tomb, her superiors pressured her to sign an affidavit denying a same-sex attraction. "I was not willing to lie," she said. "So, I did not sign it, and two months later I was out of the Coast Guard."
President Barack Obama's call to repeal "Don't Ask Don't tell" has been welcomed by gay service members who want to serve openly.
Polls conducted over the last year show a clear majority of Americans favor ending the ban. A new survey of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan finds 73 percent saying it would be "acceptable" for gay people to serve openly. Earlier polls showed greater resistance.
Opponents of repeal argue that the presence of self-avowed homosexuals will create friction, destroy morale, and reduce military effectiveness.
"We force these young men and women to live in very close, intimate situations. Many of them say, 'look, if you are going to have someone of the same sex living in close quarters with me, who is attracted to the same sex, I feel uncomfortable about it," Lieutenant Colonel Robert Maginnis (retired Army) said. "That is going to bother me.'"
Others say simply that homosexuality is incompatible with military service. "You cannot have a thief aboard. You cannot have a drug pusher or drug user. And we found out you cannot have a homosexual," Retired Admiral James Lyons, former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet said.
A recent study estimates 66,000 homosexuals currently serve -- about two percent of the total in uniform.