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First day without "don't ask/don't tell" policy is uneventful at local bases

September 20, 2011 |  6:34 pm

The first day of military life since the repeal of the "don’t ask/don’t tell” policy was uneventful at Navy and Marine Corps bases in San Diego County.

No special notice was taken Tuesday by the region’s military commands about the change that had once sparked controversy in the military and civilian communities.

Most sailors and Marines had already been briefed that no longer would gay or lesbian service members have to keep quiet about a fundamental fact of their lives.

Marine recruiters had been trained in advance: Nothing is to be said or asked about sexual orientation when talking to would-be recruits.

If someone comes into a recruiting office and wants to cause a disruption, maybe to get a video for YouTube, recruiters are trained to “remain professional and show them the door,” said Lt. Col. Arthur Woods, deputy assistant chief of staff for recruiting in the Western Recruiting Region, based in San Diego.

For former military personnel who had campaigned to have the policy lifted, it was a day of triumph.

“This just says that people can be patriotic and gay--they’re not mutually exclusive,” said retired Navy Capt. April Heinze.

Heinze, 51, said one reason she retired in 2005 after 23 years was the stress of not being able to be open about her sexuality. She is now director of the general services department at the County of San Diego.

Retired Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, 40, came to San Diego from his home in San Antonio to celebrate the change. His military career started in 1991 at the boot camp in San Diego.

Alva lost a leg in the early hours of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Only after retiring did he come out and become an activist urging repeal of the policy. He was invited to be with President Obama when he signed the legislation ending don't ask/don't tell.

 “It was surreal, standing behind the president, after so many years of having to hide and tell lies about who I am,” he said.

Alva does not think a lot of closeted Marines will suddenly come out. “Marines are patient, they’re going to wait to make sure it’s safe.”

The issue of whether gay and lesbian service members should come out remains controversial. Nationwide only a very few service members did so on Tuesday.

“We don’t have a stance on whether they should come out or not,” said Jasper Kump, a USC graduate student and a leader in the Military Acceptance Project, which seeks to help gay and lesbian service members.

Former Marine Cpl. Evelyn Thomas, 43, said she hopes that dropping the policy is only the beginning of a cultural change in the military.

She is the co-founder of the San Diego-based Sanctuary Project Veterans and hopes to enroll gays and lesbians who were discharged into the Veterans Affairs health program, in part so they can get counseling for the psychological harm done to them.

“The military culture is built on homophobia, sexism and racism,” she said. “It’s going to take time to change. Today is a start, but there is a long way to go.”

In Washington, Air Force Lt. Col. Sean Hackbarth said he knew he had to come out for himself, his partner and as a role model for younger Air Force officers who are gay. For the first time in his 22-year career, Hackbarth this week said publicly that he is gay.

“Early in my career, I bought into the idea that my personal life was secondary, that the mission was more important,” said Hackbarth, 44, a graduate of the University of San Diego.

“But as you go along, you say, ‘If I can fight for other people’s rights, maybe I should be standing up for my own rights.’”

He said the reaction of co-workers and fellow Air Force officers has been positive: “I think I’m like a lot of gay soldiers today, I’m walking with a new kind of confidence.”

Not everyone was cheering the change in policy.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Alpine), who served as a Marine in Afghanistan and Iraq, thinks that follow-up legislation may be necessary “if things are moving too fast and causing disruption.” He opposed lifting the policy.

“I only wish the administration would put as much effort and attention into addressing the roadside bomb threat in Afghanistan,” Hunter said.


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--Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Retired Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva. Credit: Human Rights Campaign.