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SLDN Interviews: Paula Neira

Paula NeiraEditor’s note: Today, SLDN continues its online series, “SLDN Interviews,” in which we get answers to questions from a variety of individuals on the front lines fighting for full LGBT equality in the U.S. military. This week we speak to SLDN Military Advisory Council (MAC) member Paula Neira, RN, CEN, Esq., LT, USNR (1985-1991).

What inspired you to join the military?
For some people, serving in the military is a calling as strong as any religious vocation - serving our country, defending our values, being part of something larger than myself. My childhood dream was to become a naval officer. By the 7th grade, I wanted to attend the Naval Academy. When it came time to apply to college, I only applied to two schools – USNA as my first choice and the Coast Guard Academy as my backup. I didn’t bother to apply to any civilian schools as I only envisioned a naval career for my adult working life.

My parents instilled in me a love of country and a belief that those who have talent and opportunities also have obligations to use those blessings for the greater good. My father, a World War II Army veteran, was always proud of his service, proud that he volunteered, and it was an unstated expectation that I would serve in my time. That foundation was then reinforced by the Jesuits when I was in high school. The Jesuit teachings of being “a man [or woman] for others” resonated with me and validated that my desire to serve in the military reflected a purposeful life.

What motivated you to join the repeal movement? When did you first become involved?
I have been actively involved in the repeal movement for over a decade. In deciding to accept a position as an SLDN staff attorney in 2001, I went to Memorial Hall at Annapolis to mull over my decision. Memorial Hall is the most solemn and sacred area of the Naval Academy. In this hall are listed the names of all the graduates who have died in service to our nation. It is where the Core Values of the Navy – Honor, Courage, and Commitment – are tangible and it is where, as a Naval Academy graduate, I can feel the weight of history – of being part of a long tradition of service that was born before me, that lives on in my actions and is passed down to those who follow. It is a place to decide if my actions would be in keeping with “the highest traditions of the Naval Service” and knowing that I would be accountable to those spirits if they were not. In that hallowed room, I asked myself, “Where does my duty lie?”

The answer was my duty required me to get into this fight. I swore an oath as a midshipman to protect and defend the Constitution and I have never been relieved of that obligation. Fighting for the right of LGBT patriots to serve our nation openly was fulfilling that oath and living up to my obligations as an officer in the United States Navy, even if I no longer wore the uniform.

Describe what it was like to finally see the President sign repeal, then issue certification along with Mullen and Panetta seven months later?
I felt a great deal of pride and satisfaction. I was proud to see our nation move closer to the more perfect union envisioned by our founders; to enjoy what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom;” and to have our country’s reality come closer to our rhetoric. Not many Americans can see our nation evolve and know it has done so because of their collective efforts in this fight.

My satisfaction stemmed from hearing Admiral Mullen explain his reasoning for supporting repeal. He was correct that DADT was always a matter of integrity. Throughout my involvement with SLDN – as an attorney, as a board member, and as a member of the Military Advisory Council – I have always felt we had another client besides the individual service members we have helped. In my case, that client has always been the Navy. DADT was a cancer, slowly eroding the Core Values that hold Honor above all else. A policy that required dedicated men and women to lie in order to serve is anathema to such values. It was welcome to hear Admiral Mullen echo that belief.

What areas of inequality remain and how do you plan to stay involved post-repeal?
For LGB service members open service will be a reality next week. However equal service does not yet exist. The fight goes on until all service members enjoy the equal benefits of service; until all military families are equally valued and supported.

Most glaringly, the inequity concerning transgender service remains. While gays and lesbians can now serve, people like me are still barred from service due to medical regulations grounded in ignorance and bigotry rather than science. Twenty years ago I sacrificed my naval career in order to accept myself. That sacrifice remains a grievous wound that never quite heals. Our collective work remains ongoing as long as men and women must still make the heartbreaking choice between serving a nation they love and being whole in their sense of self.

As a member of SLDN’s Military Advisory Council (MAC) I will remain in this fight until LGBT patriots can serve without fear of discrimination and with the honor and dignity their service deserves.

By Paul DeMiglio, SLDN Senior Communications Manager |

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