“As we mark the end of America’s combat mission in Iraq,” President Barack Obama said this week, “a grateful America must pay tribute to all who served there.” He should have added “unless you’re gay,” because, despite his rhetoric, weeks earlier the commander in chief fired one of those Iraq vets: Lt. Dan Choi.
Choi was an Iraq War veteran, a graduate of West Point and a trained Arabic linguist. I ran into Choi the day after he received his official discharge. We were at the Netroots Nation conference in Las Vegas, a gathering of thousands of bloggers, activists and journalists.
Though Choi had known the discharge was coming, he was still shaken to the core. He took out his phone and showed me the letter he was e-mailed.
Choi announced he was gay on national television in March of 2009. He knew the stakes. I asked why he did it. “I came back from Iraq,” he told me, “and I decided that it’s not worth it—I could have died at any moment in the area that I was, in the ‘Triangle of Death.’ Why should I be afraid of the truth of who I am?”
He went on: “I’ve wanted to go back to Iraq and to Afghanistan, but then I thought, ‘If I die in Afghanistan or Iraq, then would my boyfriend be notified? Or would he have to hear about it through “Democracy Now!” or CNN—who would be the one telling him?’ And the fact of the matter is ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ forces our families into the closet and into nonexistence, and that is no way to support our troops or the families that allow them to continue to serve.”
Obama promised during his presidential campaign to repeal the law that allows soldiers like Choi to be fired for being openly gay, the so-called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. The brainchild of the Clinton administration, it has led to the firing of close to 14,000 members of the military.
Obama has instructed Defense Secretary Robert Gates to conduct a survey among members of the military and their families about the potential impact of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Sounds reasonable? Not according to Choi.
“I think it’s absolutely insulting that we are having a survey right now, in this day and age. That the commander in chief [was] the first racial minority to achieve that rank and that position was a signifying moment for all of us, whether we’re racial minorities, whether we’re sexual minorities, whether we’re American citizens or not even yet American citizens, it was an absolute moment of vindication for a lot of people.” Choi, also a proud Korean-American, continued, “Nobody ever polls the soldiers on whether we should go to war or not. Nobody ever says, ‘What do you think about your commander in chief being African-American?’ ”
It’s difficult to think of Dan Choi as lucky, since the West Point graduate wanted to make the military his career, but being honorably discharged, he gets to keep his benefits. He says that’s not true of many of his peers. “A lot of people have given up quite a hefty sum of benefits, including your medical benefits, your right to go to a VA hospital without paying, if your disability rating is like mine—I’m something like 50 percent disabled from my time in service—I stood to lose all of that as well as scholarship moneys, GI bill and a home loan through the VA programs.”
At the Netroots Nation conference, Democratic leaders tried to convince their progressive base that the Democratic Party truly did represent change. When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took the stage, the moderator handed him Lt. Choi’s West Point ring and said Choi wanted him to keep it. Choi then joined Reid on the stage. Holding the ring, Reid asked Choi, speaking of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” “When we get it passed, you’ll take it back, right?” Choi responded, “I sure will, but I’m going to hold you accountable.”
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.