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Gay Army vet speaks out on 'Don't ask, don't tell'

Published: Thursday, July 2 2015 7:12 a.m. MDT

West Point graduate Dan Choi talks with journalist JoSelle Vanderhooft after speaking at the University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) West Point graduate Dan Choi talks with journalist JoSelle Vanderhooft after speaking at the University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

The first thing Dan Choi learned as a new cadet at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., was the honor code. That honor code, he said Wednesday, was simple: A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.

Under the 15-year-old government policy of "Don't ask, don't tell," which allows gays to serve in the military only if they do not disclose their sexual orientation, Choi said "we are ordered to lie about who we are."

Upon returning from Iraq earlier this year, Choi announced on MSNBC's "Rachel Maddow Show" that he is gay. Soon after, the military filed discharge papers for his public admission.

"As one of eight graduates from his class at West Point who was fluent in Arabic, you know his service was vital to the United States military mission in Iraq," said Ken Verdoia, a KUED producer who moderated a panel discussion at the Hinckley Institute of Politics on Wednesday as part of the University of Utah's Gay Pride week.

West Point graduate Dan Choi speaks at the University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News) West Point graduate Dan Choi speaks at the University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

Choi, an Army combat veteran, later penned a letter to President Barack Obama, asking him to repeal the law, almost begging to keep his job. He was dismissed from his military employment and has since become an activist for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender military veterans.

"When I started dating Matthew, he truly made me feel that I was not alone," Choi said. From his relationship, he said he was able to understand and experience commitment, sacrifice, intimacy, camaraderie and trust — "all things that made me a better soldier."

Verdoia said that since the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy was enacted in 1993, 13,000 soldiers have been discharged from military service for their sexual orientation, and the Department of Defense has spent $380 million for the loss of service to the U.S. and the cost to replace it. Obama is the second president to be asked to repeal the policy. However, Cliff Rosky, associate law professor at the U., said that the issue "is on the back-burner" until more weighty subjects such as health-care reform and the economy are dealt with.

Although Choi acknowledges that consequences follow every action, he believes the policy "not only hurts our values by going against West Point's honor code, it not only hurts our national security by kicking out soldiers, it not only costs a lot of money, but my saying three words truthfully, is somehow illegal."

U. paramedic student Sarah Hjalmarson was also discharged from the Army after serving more than a year as a medic in Baghdad.

"I felt like I had been slapped in the face for being called a second-class citizen after what I did," she said. During her service, she said she didn't necessarily lie about her lesbian relationship but "didn't tell the whole truth."

"I knew it would damage my career, but I couldn't keep lying," Hjalmarson, originally from Arizona, said. "So I got out of the Army for a girl."

Rosky said the current debate on the policy should be centered on whether homosexuality inhibits "unit cohesion," or the ability for a combat group to stick together in order to be effective.

"Although the evidence of biological choice is unclear, that's beside the point," he said. The current policy was meant as a temporary approach. Rosky said it has made homophobia more prevalent in the U.S. military because it pushes soldiers to either prove their heterosexuality or their homophobic ideals in order to serve.

"One of the things I've always expressed to people is that I might not agree with your views, but as a soldier, regardless of my sexual orientation, I will fight to the death for your right to express it," Choi said.

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

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