To be a soldier ... or a human being: One woman's encounter with 'don't ask, don't tell'

I just wanted to serve my country, but my country didn't want me. CMU grad student KAREN MESKO tells her story

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On Feb. 2, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, told members of Congress that "allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do." He spoke words I've waited years to hear: "We have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me personally, it comes down to integrity -- theirs as individuals, and ours as an institution."

I joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps as a freshman at the University of Michigan. In my junior year, I fell in love and realized I was gay. This was all a bit preoccupying, but what overwhelmed me was the weight of having to lie to the military.

"Don't ask, don't tell" is a federal law that prohibits military service by openly gay Americans. It requires the nearly impossible of those who still want to serve -- that you be celibate and completely closeted. Anyone who knows you're gay is a risk, so the closet often extends into your personal life. I faced a moral dilemma -- serving my country or upholding my integrity and honor.

This dilemma haunted me as graduation neared. Since I loved the military and couldn't imagine never wearing the uniform again, I tried to make the best of the situation. I decided to commission into the Reserves and take a civilian job so I could at least live honestly in my personal life. It was a huge disappointment to give up my dream of an active-duty career, a dream I had spent four years training for, day in and day out.

I began working at a large, progressive corporation. To my surprise, two of my new colleagues were themselves in the National Guard and Reserves. "Don't ask, don't tell" had followed me all the way to my cubicle in a Fortune 50 company. I kept to myself, but in the course of the workday I inevitably had to lie about my friends, weekend plans and relationship.

This same distance separated me from my fellow officers and soldiers at drill weekend each month. I worked hard but rarely socialized. The careful distance I maintained prevented me from forging close friendships in my unit. If I did detract from unit cohesion, it wasn't because I'm gay, it was because I couldn't be openly gay.

One of the worst aspects of being closeted is not just feeling like less of a person, but becoming less of a person -- less open, less honest, less trusting.

After several years, I was no longer willing to live in fear of being found out, or to continue compromising my integrity. I finally came out to my commander and was subsequently discharged -- for "moral and professional dereliction," as my Army discharge papers read.

I was a "distinguished graduate" of all three military training courses I attended, graduating first in my platoon in one course. I achieved perfect scores on physical fitness tests and received outstanding performance ratings.

My commander didn't want to lose me, and we talked often during the year it took to process my discharge. He didn't see why I couldn't continue serving and just keep my personal life private. In response, I asked him to try hiding his relationships for just one day -- one day without discussing his wife or kids with anyone, without even indicating he had a wife and kids. I looked at his wedding ring and said that it would have to go.

He finally understood my point: The person you build a life with is not a hobby or a "lifestyle" you can just as easily keep private as not. "Don't ask, don't tell" is not about discretion, but the dehumanization of gay service members simply because of who they love.

I deeply regret losing out on an active-duty career. I regret not being able to continue serving, especially given the toll two wars has taken on our military. It pains me to watch friends and loved ones keep deploying, while I am not there to share the burden.

But I am inspired by Adm. Mullen's leadership in trying to restore the integrity of one of our nation's most respected institutions. My hope is that a little girl growing up today won't have to make the choice I had to -- between being a soldier and being a human being.

Karen Mesko is working on a master's degree in public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University ( ). After completing Air Force ROTC training at the University of Michigan in 2004, she served as an officer in the Air Force Reserves and the Army National Guard. She grew up in Traverse City, Mich. First Published February 21, 2010 5:00 AM


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