Jenny Kopfstein, former U.S. Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade
After spending two years in a civilian college, Jenny Kopfstein joined the United States Navy when she entered the United States Naval Academy in 1995.
Kopfstein graduated from the Naval Academy with a Bachelors Degree in Physics on May 26, 1999, and was selected as a Surface Warfare Officer.
She immediately attended the prestigious Surface Warfare Officer's School in Rhode Island - a school dedicated to teaching shipboard systems and operations, similar to the flight training pilots receive at flight school.
After graduating from the Surface Warfare Officer"s School, Kopfstein was given her first duty station on the U.S.S. SHILOH. The SHILOH's homeport is in San Diego. Serving on board a ship for the first time, Kopfstein realized that concealing her sexual orientation from others was inconsistent with her strong values of honesty and honor.
Kopfstein found it difficult to answer casual questions about her personal life without lying or concealing the whole truth. After a few months on board, Kopfstein gave her Commanding Officer a letter saying that she was a lesbian, and also saying that she wished to continue service.
Despite having made this admission, the Navy did not immediately seek to discharge Kopfstein during her first deployment. Instead, Kopfstein went on a second, six-month deployment in the Western Pacific in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. She completed that deployment, and still no discharge proceedings began. Although Kopfstein had originally been scheduled for an 18-month tour of duty on the SHILOH, she was retained on the ship for 22 months.
Admitting her sexual orientation to others did not harm Kopfstein's job performance. To the contrary, during her deployment and in the months following that deployment, Kopfstein continued to display a high degree of professionalism and excellence. The Navy recognized this, and gave Kopfstein several awards and honors, including qualifying Kopfstein as Officer of the Deck Underway, which allowed her to take command of the entire ship in certain situations. Kopfstein was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Junior Grade (O-2) with a Surface Warfare Officer specialty after returning from deployment.
Nineteen months after admitting her sexual orientation, a Board of Inquiry finally convened to investigate whether grounds existed for discharging Kopfstein under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Although it is highly unusual for a Navy Captain to speak on a subordinate officer's behalf in a Board of Inquiry hearing, both of Kopfstein's Captains (command of the U.S.S. SHILOH changed during her tour of duty) volunteered to testify on her behalf. Both Captains testified that they understood that Kopfstein was a lesbian, but that Kopfstein was an excellent officer and that she should ideally remain in the Navy.
The Board of Inquiry disregarded the recommendations of Kopfstein's Captains. Concluding that Kopfstein's statement that she is a lesbian constituted grounds for discharge under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the board voted in February 2002 to discharge Kopfstein from the Navy.
After a delay, Kopfstein was honorably discharged from the Navy on October 31, 2002. At the time of her discharge, Kopfstein had served in the Navy for nearly three years, not counting her four years as a midshipman at the Academy. During her service, Kopfstein received numerous awards, including the Navy Achievement Medal, Meritorious Unit Commendation (2), Battle "E" Ribbon, National Defense Service Medal (2), Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, Navy Expert Rifle Medal, Navy Expert Pistol Shot Medal, and Surface Warfare Qualification Breast Insignia.
Rhonda Davis, former U.S. Navy Petty Officer First Class (1995-2006)
Rhonda Davis is from the small town of Buena Vista, Virginia. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from James Madison University with a B.A. degree in 1992, and went on to take graduate courses and teach English at JMU before joining the Navy in 1995. For the next four years, Rhonda served as a Radioman in Rota Spain and later, aboard the USNS Concord in Norfolk, Virginia.
After successfully completing a four-year enlistment, Rhonda decided not to re-enlist, but remained in the active reserves, serving in a Mobile Inshore Undersea War Unit in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia for nearly two years.
In September 2000, Rhonda took a job at a language school in Poland, teaching English and Spanish for a one-semester term, then returned to the U.S. and re-joined the military. The exotic travel and lifestyle of the Navy called her back, despite "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and she re-entered as a Navy journalist. After graduating top of the class in both the Defense Information School’s Journalism and Broadcasting courses, Rhonda accepted a billet at the American Forces Network, Yokota Air Base, Japan. There, she worked in all areas of journalism and broadcasting, including news production, directing, reporting, TV news anchor, radio DJ for Eagle 810, and Operations Manager. She won six civilian broadcasting awards for radio and television spots, two Navy Chief of Information (CHINFO) award for Best Radio Entertainment Program and Best Informational Program, 3 Air Force Media awards, an Air Force Commendation Medal for meritorious service to Air Force News, numerous photography awards, and was voted Pacific Stars & Stripes AFN Personality 2004.
In January 2006, Rhonda transferred to Navy Recruiting District New York where she served as Public Affairs Officer until being discharged for homosexual admission in July of the same year.
Now Rhonda lives in Long Island with her partner of more than 3 years, and she works with Soulforce and Military Equality Alliance to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.
She has appeared on CNN’s Paula Zahn Now and American Morning, as well as in such publications as Stars & Stripes, Navy Times, Newsday, and The Advocate. Rhonda also lobbies with immigration equality organizations for the "Uniting American Families Act," a law that would offer binational same-sex couples the same recognition and treatment afforded to binational married heterosexual couples.
David Hall, former U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant
I joined the Air Force on March 6, 1996, following in the footsteps of my father and step father, who each served more than 20 years in the Air Force.
After basic training, I graduated from tech school with the second-highest score in my class and was assigned to the 27th Fighter Squadron at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia.
At Langley, I was one of the top airmen in my flight. I worked as a weapons loader, winning several loading competitions and the Airman of the Quarter award. While based at Langley, I did a three-month assignment in Saudi Arabia, and was handpicked to go to Kuwait to help fix aircraft.
I was accepted to the Air Force ROTC in May 2001. Then, after receiving a strong recommendation from my active-duty commander, I was honorably discharged from active duty in August 2001 so I could join Air Force ROTC. I had served five years and attained the rank of Staff Sergeant (E-5) with an Aircraft Armament Systems specialty.
During my active duty service, I received numerous awards including the Air Force Achievement Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Longevity Service Award, Air Force Training Ribbon, NCO Professional Military Education Ribbon, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Air Force Outstanding Unit Ward, Air Force Good Conduct Medal and Distinguished Graduate of Airman Leadership School.
In March 2002, I received a coveted slot to train to be a pilot-an honor given to approximately 500 cadets nationwide each year. At the time I received this honor, I had the highest ranking of all the Air Force ROTC juniors in my detachment. I was soon named a Cadet Captain and flight commander, then advancing to the position of Operations Group Commander, Cadet Lt. Col, another leadership position.
Following my discharge under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in 2002, I became a plaintiff in SLDN's constitutional challenge to the government's ban on open service and now work as the organization's Devlopment Director and Information Systems Manager.
Bleu Copas, former U.S. Army Sergeant
A decorated sergeant and Arabic language specialist, I was discharged from the U.S. Army under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," though my accuser was never identified. I was "outed" by a stream of anonymous e-mails to my superiors in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. An eight-month Army investigation culminated in my honorable discharge from the Army - less than four years after I enlisted, motivated by a sense of duty to my country in the days following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Following my dismissal from the Army, I spoke widely in the press about living under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and the need to repeal the ban on open service. I appeared in countless newspaper articles (including The New York Times), on talk radio programs around the country, and on both Good Morning America and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Darren Manzella, former U.S. Army Sergeant
I served two tours of duty in the Middle East in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. A decorated health care specialist, I provided critical care on the streets of Baghdad and been praised and rewarded for his work. In December 2007 I returned from my second tour of duty, where I served as an openly gay soldier for the entirety of the rotation, to both my colleagues and command.
In 2002 I joined the U.S. Army and was assigned, following basic training, to the 1-82nd Field Artillery Battalion Aid Station at Fort Hood, Texas, where I was a health care specialist for my battalion.
Additionally, I served as the lead instructor and coordinator for the Combat Lifesaver program, which trains non-medical soldiers emergency first aid procedures to assist the medical personnel in treating and evacuating injured soldiers and civilians in a combat situation. In March 2004, I deployed to Iraq, where I provided medical coverage, emergency treatment and evacuation during more than 100 12-hour duties on the streets of Baghdad. While under fire, I provided medical care to my fellow soldiers, Iraqi National Guardsmen and Iraqi civilians. My service during an attack in Iraq earned me the Combat Medical Badge, and I also received several other awards recognizing my courage and duty to service in the war zone.
Following threats of outing and a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" investigation by my command, I wrote in a letter that, "I don't think most people can understand how hard it is to have to hide their true self; to have to pretend to be someone that they are not; to be scared that you'll be ostracized for being different; to be told that you're wrong if you live a certain life . . . that concerns no one else but yourself. . . . I am proud of myself and of the accomplishments I have achieved in my life."
"I know that being gay would not have made a difference in receiving my college degree . . . .," Manzella wrote, "my time spent as a psychiatric counselor . . . [and] certainly didn't make a difference when I treated injuries and saved lives in the streets of Baghdad."
I was met with overwhelming support from both my fellow soldiers and superiors after coming out. The investigation into my personal life was closed and the Army deployed me later that year for a second tour of duty in the Middle East - again in Baghdad and then Kuwait - in 2006.
A member of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network Speakers Bureau, I have shared my story about serving openly to CBS's 60 Minutes, making me one of the first openly gay, active-duty service members to speak with media while serving inside the war zone.
In March of 2008 I was informed by my commander at Fort Hood, Texas, that I was being recommended for discharge under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"; a copy of the 60 Minutes transcript was attached to the discharge recommendation. On June 10, 2008, I was separated from the military with an honorable discharge.
Today I continue to fight for repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Using my personal experiences, I continue to speak out publicly and travel the country to educate others by adding a personal perspective to expose the harmful effects and discrimination of the current law banning open service of gay and lesbian Americans.
Stephen Benjamin: “Don’t Ask, Translate”
IMAGINE for a moment an American soldier deep in the Iraqi desert. His unit is about to head out when he receives a cable detailing an insurgent ambush right in his convoy’s path. With this information, he and his soldiers are now prepared for the danger that lies ahead.
Reports like these are regularly sent from military translators’ desks, providing critical, often life-saving intelligence to troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the military has a desperate shortage of linguists trained to translate such invaluable information and convey it to the war zone.
The lack of qualified translators has been a pressing issue for some time — the Army had filled only half its authorized positions for Arabic translators in 2001. Cables went untranslated on Sept. 10 that might have prevented the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Today, the American Embassy in Baghdad has nearly 1,000 personnel, but only a handful of fluent Arabic speakers.
I was an Arabic translator. After joining the Navy in 2003, I attended the Defense Language Institute, graduated in the top 10 percent of my class and then spent two years giving our troops the critical translation services they desperately needed. I was ready to serve in Iraq.
But I never got to. In March, I was ousted from the Navy under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which mandates dismissal if a service member is found to be gay.
My story begins almost a year ago when my roommate, who is also gay, was deployed to Falluja. We communicated the only way we could: using the military’s instant-messaging system on monitored government computers. These electronic conversations are lifelines, keeping soldiers sane while mortars land meters away.
Then, last October the annual inspection of my base, Fort Gordon, Ga., included a perusal of the government computer chat system; inspectors identified 70 service members whose use violated policy. The range of violations was broad: people were flagged for everything from profanity to outright discussions of explicit sexual activity. Among those charged were my former roommate and me. Our messages had included references to our social lives — comments that were otherwise unremarkable, except that they indicated we were both gay.
I could have written a statement denying that I was homosexual, but lying did not seem like the right thing to do. My roommate made the same decision, though he was allowed to remain in Iraq until the scheduled end of his tour.
The result was the termination of our careers, and the loss to the military of two more Arabic translators. The 68 other — heterosexual — service members remained on active duty, despite many having committed violations far more egregious than ours; the Pentagon apparently doesn’t consider hate speech, derogatory comments about women or sexual misconduct grounds for dismissal.
My supervisors did not want to lose me. Most of my peers knew I was gay, and that didn’t bother them. I was always accepted as a member of the team. And my experience was not anomalous: polls of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan show an overwhelming majority are comfortable with gays. Many were aware of at least one gay person in their unit and had no problem with it.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” does nothing but deprive the military of talent it needs and invade the privacy of gay service members just trying to do their jobs and live their lives. Political and military leaders who support the current law may believe that homosexual soldiers threaten unit cohesion and military readiness, but the real damage is caused by denying enlistment to patriotic Americans and wrenching qualified individuals out of effective military units. This does not serve the military or the nation well.
Consider: more than 58 Arabic linguists have been kicked out since “don’t ask, don’t tell” was instituted. How much valuable intelligence could those men and women be providing today to troops in harm’s way?
In addition to those translators, 11,000 other service members have been ousted since the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was passed by Congress in 1993. Many held critical jobs in intelligence, medicine and counterterrorism. An untold number of closeted gay military members don’t re-enlist because of the pressure the law puts on them. This is the real cost of the ban — and, with our military so overcommitted and undermanned, it’s too high to pay.
In response to difficult recruiting prospects, the Army has already taken a number of steps, lengthening soldiers’ deployments to 15 months from 12, enlisting felons and extending the age limit to 42. Why then won’t Congress pass a bill like the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell”? The bipartisan bill, by some analysts’ estimates, could add more than 41,000 soldiers — all gay, of course.
As the friends I once served with head off to 15-month deployments, I regret I’m not there to lessen their burden and to serve my country. I’m trained to fight, I speak Arabic and I’m willing to serve. No recruiter needs to make a persuasive argument to sign me up. I’m ready, and I’m waiting.
Stephen Benjamin is a former petty officer second class in the Navy.
Joan Darrah: “One sailor’s call to duty after 9/11”
In response to Sept. 11, 2001, many people felt called to military service in order to do something to defend our great country. Sept. 11 had the opposite impact on my life.
At 8:30 a.m. that day, I went to a meeting in the Pentagon. At 9:30 a.m., I left that meeting. At 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon and destroyed the exact space I had left less than eight minutes earlier, killing seven of my colleagues.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was a lesbian Navy captain who, at that time, had more than 28 years of dedicated military service. My partner, Lynne Kennedy, an openly gay reference librarian at the Library of Congress, and I had been together for more than 11 years. Each day, I went to work wondering if that would be the day I would be fired because someone had figured out I was gay.
In spite of that stress, somehow Lynne and I had learned to deal with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"; we had made the requisite sacrifices. I had pretended to be straight and had played the games most gays in the military are all too familiar with.
But after Sept. 11 our perspective changed dramatically. In the days and weeks that followed, I went to at least seven funerals and memorial services for shipmates who had been killed in the Pentagon attack. As the numbness began to wear off, it hit me how incredibly alone Lynne would have been had I been killed.
The military is known for how it pulls together and helps people; we talk of the "military family" which is a way of saying we always look after each other, especially in times of need. But none of that support would have been available for Lynne, because under "don't ask, don't tell," she couldn't exist.
In fact, had I been killed, Lynne would have been one of the last people to know, because nowhere in my paperwork or emergency contact information had I dared to list Lynne's name. This realization caused us both to stop and reassess exactly what was most important in our lives. During that process we realized that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was causing us to make a much bigger sacrifice than either of us had ever admitted.
Nine months later, in June 2002, I retired after 29 years in the U.S. Navy, an organization I will always love and respect.
Today, six years after that fateful day at the Pentagon, I am now committed to doing everything I possibly can to get rid of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" so our military can finally be open to all qualified and motivated individuals who want to serve their country. This is the right step for our country, for our military, and for all gay men and lesbians.
I have great love and respect for our country, but I know we can do better than "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."