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Ousted gay veterans herald repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell'

September 20, 2011 |  6:57 pm

DADT

As the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy ended Tuesday, former service members ousted for their sexual orientation hailed the change as "exhilarating" and predicted the military would be better for it.

Margaret Witt, a decorated lesbian flight nurse who fought her dismissal from the Air Force in 2006 under “don’t ask, don’t tell,”  was in Washington to celebrate the policy’s repeal.

“It’s absolutely phenomenal. I mean, it’s so exhilarating that this has finally happened for our troops. I always said that if I could make the difference for one person, everything was worth what I did,” Witt said in a telephone interview from the capital.

Witt, an 18-year Air Force veteran, was deployed in the Persian Gulf, treating soldiers wounded in the Afghan war.

She had returned to McChord Air Force Base near Tacoma, Wash., when she was administratively discharged for homosexual conduct in connection with a committed relationship she'd had with a civilian between 1997 and 2003.

A federal court ruled in her favor on a challenge filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, but a final settlement didn't come until May, when the government agreed to drop its appeal and grant her a normal retirement with full benefits.

Asked if the repeal would mean a dramatic change in how the military operates, she said: “I think in the end we’ll find it’s not that big of a deal.  Especially for the younger generations.  They know that there’s gays in the military, and they’ve been working alongside them, and they’re the ones that say, 'We don’t care.' It was the troops in my case who stood up and said, ‘We guessed she was, but we didn’t care.’ ”

At McChord, which has since merged with the nearby Ft. Lewis Army base, troops have undergone mandatory training on the new policy conducted by unit commanders, base spokeswoman Catherine Caruso said.

“Effectively, it was a PowerPoint presentation with some discussion,” she said.  “There was some information about benefits, about how sexual orientation would no longer be a bar to enlistment or a cause for outprocessing. It was very generic. There was some anti-harassment training, which is really a restatement of the stuff we get anyway.

“There were some questions about would people get separate bathrooms or separate living quarters. The answer was, they wouldn’t be segregated for the purposes of bathrooms or barracks assignments. It was very straightforward,” Caruso said.

“There were things like, ‘If you see two people in uniform engaging in public displays of affection, do you step in and say something?’ Well, that’s really a question of military bearing. It’s not gender-specific.”

Bleu Copas, who trained in the Army as an Arabic linguist, organized a celebration of the repeal in Knoxville, Tenn., five years after he was outed by a fellow soldier and discharged.

“It’s a sense of validation and vindication; it’s a reward for what has been taken from me,” said Copas, 35, who went on to earn a master's in counseling at East Tennessee State University.

Copas had spent four years training and was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., when someone broke into his email and forwarded some of his messages to his commander. He never knew who outed him, although the soldier chatted with him online, trying to explain what he had done.

“He said he thought he was helping the Army,” Copas said.

What Copas felt was hate.

"The repeal kind of takes away the power of that hate," he said.

Copas is considering whether to reenlist. He thinks the military will be a better place.

“What will happen is ... folks who feared the idea of open service will realize a lot more people than they think are gay,” he said. "Some people are going to be forced to look at themselves and realize that their fears and their ideas of division aren’t congruent with the values of service members.”

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-- Kim Murphy in Lakewood, Wash., outside Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston

Photo: Local leaders and former members of the military mark the end of "don't ask, don't tell" at a San Francisco news conference.  Credit: Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

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