The hidden costs of 'Don't ask, don't tell'

My first exposure to the issue of gays in the military came on one of my first days as a new cadet at West Point. We were marching (we would spend a lot of that year marching) to cadences, those singsong rhymes you associate with the military. One particular gung ho upperclassman led one about berets—“See the man in the red beret! …. See the man in the green beret! …” What I especially remember is the last verse, the apparent punch line of the cadence, only some of which is printable here: “See the man in the pink beret! He’s the worst you’ll ever see!  Hom-o-sex-u-al-it-y!”

That day in 1993, I did not yet know how personal this was to me. When I entered West Point, I wasn’t thinking about being gay or being straight; I was thinking about being a great cadet. It was only later when I came to accept my own truth – that I am a gay woman – that I began to contemplate the sacrifice that the Army would demand of me if I wanted to continue my chosen career. Over time I would realize that it was more than the life I was willing to lay down for my country. It was the sacrifice of all that we live life for: a loving partner, children and an honest life.

West Point has come a long way in the last seventeen years. I wish that I could say the same for the United States military’s policy against the gay men and lesbian women who serve honorably in its ranks. With at least 25 nations, including the vast majority of our NATO allies, allowing gays to serve openly today, the U.S. ban, while never wise is increasingly outdated. We can and should repeal the law the way those nations did, with virtually no problems: quickly and decisively, and with the strong support of the brass. I know the professional women and men with whom I served can carry out those orders without disruption.

Now, Congress is finally revisiting “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” The law has cost the armed services, by conservative estimates, more than 13,000 troops and $1.3 billion in lost training. “Conservative” because those numbers only capture the number of men and women actually discharged under DADT, not the many like me, who decided not to continue in their chosen profession because of the law.

When I was at West Point, it never occurred to me that I would leave the Army after my initial five-year commitment. I treasured being a West Point cadet and loved leading soldiers as an Army officer. Frankly, I was among the camp that used to look down on Academy graduates who served just five years (who we called “Five and Flyers”). We had come to West Point to serve our nation, and the school instilled in us the expectation of a lifetime of leadership for our country.

I served with pride, and I served well. Even graded on the military’s curve, I regularly got “top blocks” in my reviews. During my final year, everyone short of the post commander asked me not to leave.  Because I could not tell them the real reason for my decision, they thought there was room for negotiation. So they offered me a command. They offered to have the Army pay for law school for me.

Of course, they couldn’t offer me the one thing that would have made a difference: the opportunity to serve honestly. Staying in would have meant lying about the person that I loved, denying myself the opportunity to openly raise children with her, and being forced to live a lie while demanding a life of honor from those around me.

(Ironically, my partner was raised an “Army brat” on bases around the world as the daughter of an officer, and she loved it. If given the opportunity, she would have loved the life of an Army spouse.)

DADT not only costs the military good officers — and a costly investment — it creates vulnerabilities for all officers, much like witch hunts of the old days. You never know when a soldier that you disciplined might try to invoke the policy as retaliation, or when your battalion might use DADT to justifying spying on you. I had wonderful relationships with the soldiers and officers in all of my units — many of us are still friends on Facebook — but I can’t deny that I thought about these things.

I know many others who are still in the military who are also thinking about these things, gays and lesbians who are waiting to see what Congress does before deciding whether they will “re-up.” If the policy is not repealed, many more qualified men and women will leave the military’s ranks.

I still strive to lead my life in honorable service to country. But I will always regret that because DADT made it impossible for me to have a family and be true to myself in the military, it will be a civilian life.

Megan McDonald Scanlon is a West Point graduate and resident of Norfolk, Va.