WASHINGTON - On paper, Dan Choi is everything the US military could have hoped for. He is a graduate of the prestigious West Point academy, has served a tour in Iraq, and is fluent in Arabic and Korean.
But despite his talents and experience, the army is seeking to get rid of Choi because of another personal quality it considers incompatible with military life: Choi is openly gay.
In one of the last instances of government-sanctioned discrimination in America, the United States military allows gay men and lesbians to serve in the military only if they keep quiet about their sexuality. For more than a year after meeting his boyfriend and falling in love, Choi was forced to lie or risk joining a long list of almost 13,000 gay and lesbian personnel discharged in the past 16 years under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
"What if I deploy and he can't come to the tarmac to wish me goodbye," he asked himself, "or kiss me when I come back?" If he were to fall in combat, to whom would the army present the flag that draped his coffin?
"I started my first relationship ever in life at age 27," Choi said. "I'm understanding finally what love is. I have to make the decision: am I going to continue lying?"
This winter, Choi decided the answer was no. In March he announced on television that he is a gay soldier. The military responded with a terse letter informing him he would be charged with violating army regulations. Choi faces a disciplinary panel tomorrow.
"Specifically, you admitted publicly that you are a homosexual," the letter read. "Your actions negatively affected the good order and discipline of the New York Army National Guard."
"It's an insult to their professionalism," Choi said of the insinuation that his fellow soldiers cannot abide a gay comrade. "They care about what a person can do for the team. We're in a time of war. We have bigger things to worry about than people being gay."
The discharge of thousands of people from the military because of their sexuality over the past 16 years has generated strong criticism that it is diminishing US military strength at a time when the country can hardly afford it.
The Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns make onerous demands on manpower, and relations remain tense with Iran and North Korea. But the army has discharged 59 gay Arabic linguists and nine gay Farsi linguists in the last five years, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defence Network. Britain, Israel and dozens of other countries allow gay personnel to serve openly.
Aside from its impact on military readiness, Choi's story tells of the policy's personal toll on dedicated soldiers like him, who are forced to conceal the relationships that keep them going through long hours of training and combat and give them something to fight for.
"To me it was like being back in Iraq," he said recently. "You're always looking around to see who can see you."
Choi, 28, served as an infantry officer, translator and language instructor in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. He looked forward to redeploying to Iraq, but his life took a profound turn in January 2008 when, during a furtive, curious visit to a gay nightclub in New York City, he met Matthew Kinsey, a 45-year old executive at Gucci. The two men had their first date soon after, at an Italian restaurant in New York City. Choi arrived in uniform.
Over the coming months the two grew close. Through Choi's strict upbringing in a religious immigrant household and his years in the military, he had never lived openly as a gay man. Kinsey helped him through the experience.
"He's dealing with things I dealt with in college," Kinsey said, "in an environment where you can't be who you are.'"
Choi delighted in his long-overdue emotional awakening.
"I look at Matthew," he said, "and I think everybody should have this. The whole world makes sense to me."
In between his weekend jaunts to New York City, Choi's comrades back at the base wondered why he was suddenly so cheery. Choi was inexperienced in romance, and sought advice on gift ideas for the lover he called "Martha" (should he buy her chocolates? Jewellery?). But the deceit took its toll.
"It was too much lying every day," he said. "It takes an incredible amount of energy to keep up the lie. Every time I wanted to talk about it, I'd have to make sure not to use the wrong pronoun."
So Choi left the army, moved to New York City and signed up in a part-time position with a military unit controlled by the state of New York, but one that could deploy to Iraq. In March, he announced his sexuality on a cable television chat show.
Soon after coming out, Choi returned to base for a weekend training session, where he directed live-fire exercises. To his surprise the men had no unkind words for him, and those who approached him at a bar on base one evening praised his courage and trust in them. He says they told him they cared less about his sexuality and more about the "capabilities you bring to the fight".
If he concedes the charge, Choi will probably be offered an honourable discharge, albeit one that states he was expelled for being gay, he said. But he says he intends to fight and if he loses, he risks forfeiting pension and health benefits and other financial advantages offered to American vets.
As he prepared for his hearing he took part in gay rights demonstrations and met members of Congress to advocate an end to the ban on openly gay soldiers.
"They have a hard enough job as it is, so why would you force them into the closet?" he asks. "Family makes a better soldier."
A flawed compromise
The "don't ask, don't tell" policy was Bill Clinton's 1993 compromise with US military leaders who opposed his efforts to open the armed services to gay people. The policy concedes that allowing gay people to serve in the military would undermine morale, good order, discipline and unit cohesion. Since then, almost 13,000 people have been discharged. Barack Obama has pledged to allow gay servicemen and women to serve openly, but the White House has yet to call for Congress to change the law. More than 260 gay and lesbian service members have been discharged since Obama took office in January, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defence Network, causing impatience among gay rights advocates and some in the military.