The OutHeroes Project: CPT Michelle Benecke

In Honor of Captain Michelle Benecke

by Sue Fulton

Former Army Captain Michelle Benecke is a co-founder and former CEO of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN). She and colleague Dixon Osburn formed SLDN the day after President Clinton announced DADT in 1993 to assist military members and implement a long term strategy to overturn DADT. Establishing an advocacy organization for military members had long been a goal of Benecke’s based on her experience as an Army officer.

In 1983, Benecke graduated from the University of Virginia and was one of a small number of women commissioned in the Army’s Air Defense Artillery (ADA) branch. Excluded from Infantry and Armor, women who served in ADA were a rare breed, among the very few women leading combat arms units. Thanks to her recognized leadership ability and hard work, Benecke was selected early for battery command (the artillery’s equivalent of company command), and performed well enough to be selected for a prestigious fellowship to law school, paid for by the Army.

However, Benecke’s selection for the fellowship heightened the ethical dilemma she was experiencing because of the gay ban. Not only would she have to lie to continue her military career, but she faced the possibility of having to prosecute other gay people as an Army lawyer. As a result, Benecke made the painful decision to resign her commission and forfeit the fellowship for reasons of integrity.

In the 80s, Army women faced discrimination and sexual harassment – especially in “non-traditional” fields like Air Defense and Field Artillery. And in a time of widespread witch hunts, women were frequently charged with being gay, whether they were or not. Such charges might be leveled in retaliation for spurning a male soldier’s advances or to smear a fellow officer who might be competing for a choice assignment. Typically, investigators sought to gather lists of suspected gay people for further investigation.

Several weeks before Benecke’s tour ended, she was caught up in one of the many investigations. Already accepted to Harvard Law School, the pressure was intense, but Benecke survived the investigation and did not name names. With only days to spare, Benecke was released from the Army and began Harvard Law School in 1989.

While at law school, Benecke began speaking and writing for repeal of the gay ban. Among others, she and classmate Kirstin Dodge published an influential law journal article that exposed the military’s use of the gay ban against women in non-traditional fields. The article circulated, and Benecke started to hear from gay and lesbian military members.

When President Clinton announced DADT on July 19, 1993, it was clear that military members would need ongoing legal help. Gay organizations had no plans to assist military members or to seek repeal of DADT. So, Benecke and Osburn launched SLDN. Benecke served as co-director from 1993 to 2000, providing free legal assistance to military members, watch dogging the military and laying the foundation to overturn DADT.

Among many incidents of abuse, the brutal murder of PFC Barry Winchell is one of the most well-known. Soldiers in Winchell’s unit sought outside help – they were concerned military officials were attempting to cover up the circumstances of his death. SLDN’s investigation found evidence that Winchell was killed in a hate crime and helped to ensure prosecution of the attackers.

  1. Sarah Riggle
    January 30, 2012 at 8:48 AM

    Ms. Fulton; I wonder if you have knowledge of a member of the Sergeant’s Major Academy that was dismissed from his Academy class for being caught cross-dressed and was subsequently honorable discharged under DADT in Oct 1993.
    The Academy Member’s name was John A. Riggle 1SGT

    • Sue Fulton
      February 1, 2012 at 5:00 PM

      I don’t, but SLDN might. (The Sergeant Majors Academy isn’t related to the Military Academy, which is at West Point).

      You can inquire with


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