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Saturday, January 29, 2011

DADT-Discharged Dan Choi Shouldn't Have To Pay Back His Signing Bonus - Here's Why

By David Badash -

Dan Choi, forever the activist, set off a firestorm late Wednesday night when he tweeted, "To the U.S. Marshals who came to my friend's NYC apartment looking for me: I don't couchsurf there anymore. I'm at 6 Traymore Cambridge MA," which was then followed by, "Well, I do owe the Army a few thousand $ for my DADT discharge (and refuse to pay a cent.) Or it could be for D.C. direct actions."
Dan Choi's "direct action" -- chaining himself to the White House fence -- didn't win him much love from the government the first time, but the last time he did it seems to have garnered some "attention." Dan, along with some of his fellow members of the "White House 13" -- the 13 GetEQUAL activists and LGBT vets who chained themselves, for the last time, to the White House fence in November -- received visits from the U.S. Marshal, "generously" reminding them of upcoming court appearances. Intimidation, much? John Aravosis speaks to this vindictive, abusive use of power here and here.
Robin McGehee, GetEQUAL Co-Founder and of the "White House 13" told me today that the U.S. Marshals have attempted to contact all 13 protestors. She adds, "I believe the efforts being made by the U.S. Government to collect the debt of soldiers who were unjustly and unconstitutionally thrown out under DADT is unethical and morally wrong. These individuals did nothing but serve their country -- many of them not coming out to themselves or to others until after serving years in the military. Asking those who have served our country, and then were discriminated against to repay such a loan is completely absurd and should easily be forgiven.  As for our U.S. Marshal visits, I am willing to take whatever punishment set forth, as I was aware that I was taking such a risk -- but, that risk was taken to highlight and illuminate the homophobic and transphobic policies of our U.S. government and as our government begins to right a wrong -- they might consider dropping charges since our actions were used to bring mainstream attention to their oversight.  At the very least, save tax payer money and send us a letter about future court dates, instead of the "attempted" intimidation of a U.S. Marshal."
Justin Elzie, the first Marine to be discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" 18 years ago, is one of November's "White House 13" also. He's waiting for his visit from the U.S. Marshals, and today he told me, "I believe the personal visits by U.S. Marshals all over the country are a bit excessive. To me the government is wasting U.S. tax dollars to send U.S. Marshals to serve us with papers. One has to question if they are trying to make an example out of us so that no one ever again chains themselves to the White House fence. Is the government trying to intimidate and send a message to have a chilling effect?  Dissent and civil disobedience are not illegal in this country, and in fact, are very American ideals."
So back to Dan. As it turns out, if you're in the military, and get discharged because of the (still in-effect) "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law for being gay, the military requires you to pay back your enlistment bonus, and the costs associated with your training and education, even though you didn't quit, you got fired.
Yup! Not only are you discharged for being gay, you're charged for being gay. It's a military one-two-three punch!
What's punch number three? If you're fired for being gay in the military (it's still called a discharge, and it's usually classified as "honorable,") and you are pension-eligible, the military automatically cuts your pension in half! Why? Because they want to. There's no law requiring them to do it. They just do it because, well, they want to.
(Fortunately, the ACLU has decided to sue the government, "challenging the Defense Department’s discriminatory policy of cutting in half the separation pay of service members who have been honorably discharged for being gay. The separation pay policy is not part of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” statute, and can be changed without congressional approval.")
So back to Dan again, who, as it turns out, "owes" the military $2,519.18 from his "enlistment bonus," and Thursday told President Obama, "I refuse to pay your claim."
Which reminded us again of this offensive, vindictive, and not-legally-required practice by the U.S. military.
I reached out to Alexander Nicholson, Executive Director of Servicemembers United, a group which "actively engages in education, advocacy, and lobbying on issues affecting the gay military, veteran, and defense community," and was instrumental in lobbying Congress and the president on the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Nicholson told me via email, "Servicemembers United has been pro-actively and steadily pressuring the White House to end the practice of recoupment of education and training costs in 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' discharge cases. The practice, which can be terminated by the President with the stroke of a pen, continues to ruin the lives and credit ratings of people who have only tried to live up to the values that the military unquestioningly demands."
Nicholson also pointed me to a Servicemembers United memo, which reads in part:
"When a servicemember is discharged from the military during or after certain periods of training or education (ROTC, Service Academies, medical schools, etc.), federal law gives the service secretaries the OPTION to demand that the discharged servicemember repay all or part of the training or education investment. This practice is wrongly (although arbitrarily) applied to gay discharges as well, which are formally considered INvoluntary discharges and are often caused by a servicemember trying to live up to the values and integrity that the military unquestioningly demands. This practice immediately saddles veterans in their 20s with tens of thousands of dollars in debt due immediately, which wreaks havoc on their lives and credit."
The memo offers these unconscionable examples, too:

1) West Point graduate Anthony Woods is an Iraq War veteran who had earned more than 70 days of leave after returning from war. When he was discharged under DADT soon thereafter, not only did the Army demand recoupment of $33,000 in education and training costs, but it also refused to pay him out for the leave he earned in Iraq because it instead decided to apply that earned leave payout he was owed to his recoupment debt. On top of that, he will now be pursued by debt collectors for the Army to recover the remainder.
2) Sara Isaackson entered ROTC at the University of North Carolina before she came to terms with being a lesbian. After she grew comfortable with this part of her identity, she elected to live up to the values that ROTC drilled into cadets every day. She stopped making up the elaborate lies required to cover up her orientation and started being honest. The ROTC program at UNC discharged her and demanded that she repay $78,000 immediately. Isaackson is in her early 20s, still in college, and obviously does not have $78,000 to hand over, so she will now be pursued by debt collectors and have her credit ruined.
3) Mara Boyd was discharged from ROTC at the University of Colorado four years ago for being a lesbian. The Department of Defense demanded $33,000 back in education and training costs. Boyd, who went on to self-fund the remainder of her college education, obviously did not have tens of thousands of dollars in cash on hand to repay the federal government. Four years later, debt collectors for the government still hound her and increasing fees have increased the recoupment debt to $35,000.

Is this how we treat our gay and lesbian service members, who want to serve their country so badly they hide their true selves, knowing every day could be their last? Knowing, we now learn, that they could get fired, be forced by the government and commercial creditors to "pay back" thousands, maybe tens of thousands of dollars, and have their pensions cut in half?
Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel writes,
"The Huffington Post spoke with Eric Durr, spokesman for the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs, who explained that even though he was discharged involuntarily, Choi still had to repay the portion of the bonus because DADT was the law of the land when he came out in 2009:
Lt. Choi joined the New York Army National Guard in 2008, and agreed to serve in the New York Army National Guard as an office for three years in exchange for a $10,000 affiliation bonus. So he was given $10,000 extra, on top of his regular Army National Guard Reserve pay, for joining the National Guard, because we need young officers. Under the terms of this, which occurred in March 2008, he agreed to repay the part of the bonus that he had not yet discharged an obligation for, if he failed to satisfactorily complete that assigned term. And among those was involuntary separation for violating regulations. He signed it, like everybody does."
"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" may be on its way to being repealed (remember, there's still a "certification" that needs to take place), but there are about 14,000 gay men and women whose careers were cut short by it, many of whom have been paying for who they are with their careers and their checkbooks.
Let's retroactively pay back those DADT-discharged vets who were forced to "pay-back" the government when the government discharged them. And let's stop these vindictive collection procedures currently underway.
When will we stop charging America's gays and lesbians more just for being who they are?

 petition text -

Don't force Lt. Dan Choi and other gay soldiers to pay for their DADT discharges

Dear President Obama,

Lt. Dan Choi, discharged under the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2010, is facing a bill from the Department of Defense of more than $2,500. The Pentagon argues that Lt. Choi should pay back part of the enlistment bonus he received when he entered the U.S. Army.

It’s not only a tragedy that for the past 17 years, the U.S. military has kicked out over 14,000 soldiers because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But to ask these discharged soldiers to pay back thousands of dollars to the military, all for being discharged because of their sexual orientation, is outrageous.

I urge you to put an end to these kinds of charges for discharged gay soldiers. Soldiers like Lt. Choi should be honored for their valor and service, not charged thousands of dollars as a lingering consequence of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

[Your name here] 


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