The Repeal: From Leaders’ Perspective

By Neal Simpson

DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth, U.S. Air Force/Released

The repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) forced every leader in the United States military to enforce a new policy. The era of open service for lesbian, gay and bisexual service members had finally arrived. In preparation for this date, the Department of Defense ordered each of the services to conduct training for their service members and civilian employees. This three-tiered system included broad conduct and policy training for the masses, specific training for medical and religious personnel, and a further refined set of training for commanders and senior enlisted advisors. Upon completion of training and on advice from military leaders, Congress passed the legislation and the president signed it into law.

Just as no two LGB service members are the same, no chain of command faced identical issues with the repeal. For many commands, there was no tangible change; the training happened, the president signed the law, nobody came out, and everything stayed the same. Many commands experienced immediate change, however. Units in nearly every branch of every service experienced at least one service member who was brave enough to come out. For those chains of command, the significance of the repeal quickly became apparent.

OutServe wanted to capture the profiles of commanders and non-commissioned officers with one thing in common: they have an out, gay service member in their command. Unlike many, these people immediately faced the challenges of repeal. This article samples experiences in hopes of empowering other leaders with practical advice and lessons learned, as well as illustrating how truly successful the repeal of DADT has been across services.

PFC Tiffany Freeze is an Army imagery analyst currently deployed to Afghanistan. She joined the Army in 2010 because her brother was no longer able to fight. He was a combat engineer who was wounded so many times that he was no longer fit for service. Private Freeze wanted to carry on his legacy of service. She understood the DADT policy upon enlisting, but like others serving during this time, chose to hide her bisexuality in exchange for serving her country. When the repeal became official, she gradually began to come out slowly to her colleagues and friends. She eventually worked up the courage to tell the other soldiers she worked with. With the exception of a few odd glances and a few good natured jokes, her unit warmly accepted her. I corresponded with her platoon sergeant, SSG Jessica Shaffer, by e-mail, and she agreed to answer a few questions.

When asked if she had a plan on how she would handle one of her soldiers coming out and if the training received prepare her for the task, Sergeant Shaffer responded “I had thought about it to some degree. I suppose my plan was just to ensure all soldiers within my sphere of influence received fair, respectful treatment regardless of their sexual preference. My primary concern was how straight soldiers and commanders would treat LGB Soldiers if they came out. My second concern was the logistics of the repeal. I knew some soldiers may be averse to living with an open LGB roommate. Both of these concerns became irrelevant because of the training and the repeal itself.”

Asked to discuss what it was like after Private Freeze came out to the platoon and what surprised her the most, Shaffer said, “The reaction (or lack thereof) of the other soldiers in the platoon was the most surprising. I wouldn’t say I expected it to be a big deal, but everyone just carried on in the same manner as usual. No one treated her any differently.”

This platoon sergeant’s advice to other NCOs: “Have faith that your leadership will do the right thing by acting appropriately—make sure your Soldiers know this, too. Leaders must ensure all of their Soldiers receive fair treatment and must immediately address any issues that arise. Because of the training and the camaraderie of the platoon, PFC Freeze’s declaration has been a non-issue.”

U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Robert J. Fluegel/Released

Capt Matthew Phelps is a Marine company commander at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. Originally enlisting to serve as a musician in the Marine Corps Band at Twenty Nine Palms, Calif., Captain Phelps now oversees the in-processing of 51 percent of all male recruits into the Marine Corps; some 16,000 recruits annually move through his company. His personal story attracted some attention last year when he blogged about his experience as one of the many LGB Marines who took a same-sex date to his Marine Corps birthday ball. In a statement, the Commanding General of Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, BGen Daniel Yoo discussed how the recruit depot has handled the repeal. General Yoo wrote, “The repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy [is] a nonissue. Marines of different moral and religious values work, live and fight together because they’ve treated each other with dignity and respect. This is no different at the Depot. We have continued to be fair and equal, and above all, sexual orientation-neutral.”

My own story: I am currently serving as a rifle company commander in the 1st Marine Division. I came out to my wife at the end of 2010, and to my leaders and my Marines last September. I interviewed both my battalion and regimental commanders for this article. I asked them many of the same questions I asked of each of the other leaders I interviewed, but their responses were a bit more personal because of my relationship with each. I have known LtCol Targos, my battalion commander, since 2004—our wives used to work together. I have known Col Furness, my regimental commander, for the same amount of time, as he was my first battalion commander. The unique nature of these professional relationships not only changed the tone of the interview, but aIso, I believe, shaped their perspectives as commanders of an openly gay Marine. The similarity in their responses was not surprising given that they are in the same chain of command, but their perspectives are expectedly different.

U.S. Marine Corps Capt Neal Simpson in Iraq, 2005

I asked each to describe the aspect of the repeal that concerned them the most prior to Sept. 20. I wanted to know what kept them up at night as a commander. For Colonel Targos, it was simply “the reaction of the guys in the unit [infantry units are all male]. It was the unanticipated problems or friction for the Marines or sailors who come out…or the ones who don’t. For those who don’t come out, what happens if their buddies find out?” He said his concerns appear to have been unsubstantiated, but it’s still too early to tell.

“As a commander, I’m always watching for someone who may personally object to the policy, because it’s my job to make sure that these personal feelings don’t adversely affect the unit. People in ‘old-think’, whether that’s due to upbringing or experiences…that’s dangerous. We’ve got to bring them on board.”

Colonel Targos recalled a personal story from when he and his wife lived in Fredericksburg, Va. “Our new neighbors were a gay male couple,” he said. “When Wendy [his wife] and I met them and invited them over for dinner, they seemed surprised. One of the men told us “You never know what people’s motivation is…you never know if they are going to treat you differently.” Leaning forward in his chair, Colonel Targos went on. “It struck me that they were always living life so cautiously. That feeling stuck with me, and seems very relevant to this issue. I don’t ever want my Marines and sailors to feel like their unit is not their home. They need to be comfortable being who they are…a Marine or sailor, and a member of this battalion.”

When asked the same question (concerns before and after the repeal), Colonel Furness’ response was broader, and speaks to the culture of the Marine Corps. “In the Marine Corps,” he said, “we go out of our way to make people all the same. This ranges from the training they receive to the haircuts and the uniforms we wear. So with something as essential to a person’s identity as their sexuality or gender, I was concerned that it could impact cohesion.” This was specifically relevant to Colonel Furness, as his regiment was deployed to Afghanistan for a year immediately preceding the repeal.

When asked if the concern proved valid, he said that the leaders of the Marine Corps kept that from happening.

When asked about the effectiveness of the pre-repeal tiered training, Colonel Furness said, “When the commandant says color, we all color. This was particularly effective with the repeal of DADT. The Marine Corps’ unity of command helped our service just get over it. I tell Marines all the time that there are policies that I may not personally agree with, but it has no bearing on whether or not I enforce it. Leaders enforce policy.”

I asked both commanders about how they would navigate the somewhat murky waters surrounding same-sex spouses and partners under the current policy set forth by the Defense of Marriage Act. Though neither had any direct experience, they both indicated a need to approach the family readiness officer and the staff judge advocate. As Colonel Furness put it, “The benefits thing is going to be handed at the national level…that’s the bottom line. If I encountered a same-sex partner benefits issue under the current policy, I would never dream of telling my boss ‘I got this one…I’ll handle it.’ I would look quickly to Headquarters Marine Corps for guidance. What I would do is sit down with that service member and ensure they know that the command supports and will take care of them, just as we take care of all our families. We’ll help them navigate the bureaucracy. In other words, we’ll take care of our own.”

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Robertson/Released

When asked what advice he would give to other leaders, Colonel Targos chuckled and said that leaders should “be more concerned about the older folks like me. Young guys and gals are a lot more tolerant than we give them credit for. We (as leaders) have to practice what we preach… we can learn a lot from our troops when it comes to tolerance.” He also said “you can’t be 50 percent supportive. You must be 100 percent supportive of the policy change. These are your guys. Statistically speaking, you have LGB service members in your unit. Take care of them like you take do all of your troops. Any instance of discrimination is one too many.

Colonel Furness said those at greater risk require extra attention. “If you think being the listener in a ‘coming-out’ conversation is hard, consider how much harder it must be for the service member who trusted you enough to come out. When you have a service member in your unit come out, your primary concern must be on his or her emotional health.”

Sept. 20 passed without the mass coming-out parties predicted by the naysayers, but thousands of service members from every branch and service came out in the months following the repeal. For the thousands of LGB service members currently serving, the decision to come out remains a deeply personal one. Hopefully, the success of those who choose to do so now, and the support of their leaders, pave the road for the ones who follow. As with any change in an organization so steeped in tradition and rules, the acceptance of openly serving LGB members is contingent upon leaders, regardless of their personal beliefs or orientation. In the words of General Yoo, “strong leadership… made this a smooth transition. For these commanders, it was not about changing attitudes; it was about ensuring behavior remained consistent with the standards of conduct and that their service members remained cared for.

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