WASHINGTON — Air Force officials confirmed that an unidentified airman was dismissed under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law earlier this year, the first such firing since defense officials effectively put a moratorium on the law in October.
However, service officials emphasized the move came at the request of the airman, who requested to be released from military service despite the imminent repeal of the law banning openly gay troops.
“In this instance, the airman first class made a statement that he was a homosexual,” Air Force spokesman Maj. Joel Harper said Friday. “After making the statement but prior to the commander initiating separation action, the airman wrote the secretary of the Air Force asking to be separated.
“After the separation action was initiated, the individual was informed of the current status of the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and he reaffirmed to the [Air Force secretary] that he desired his separation action be expeditiously processed.”
Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson and Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Stanley Clifford also signed off on the dismissal.
“Each of these officials evaluated the case carefully, and concluded that separation was appropriate,” Harper said.
Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan said Friday that “we are obligated to follow the law until such time as it is changed.”
In a statement, Alexander Nicholson, executive director of the gay rights group Servicemembers United, said the incident “appears to be a classic case of someone simply trying to use ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ … to get out of his service obligation.”
“This has always been yet another argument that we have made over the years as to why ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is flawed and harms the military - it can be abused to allow someone to receive expensive training and then skip out on their commitment.”
But J.D. Smith, co-founder of OutServe, whose membership includes numerous active-duty gay troops, warned against judging the airman’s intent too quickly.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if this airmen, after being put under the stress of being told he may be discharged, asked to be separated expeditiously,” he said. “It’s humiliating to be put under investigation of one’s sexual orientation and told you will lose your career. Many want to move on with their lives after that type of experience.”
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said his group currently has several clients facing administrative board hearings this month on “don’t ask, don’t tell” investigations.
“This discharge… does nothing to diminish our concern that servicemembers remain under investigation and are at risk,” he said.
Last fall, defense officials put new rules in place requiring that senior military leaders sign off on all “don’t ask, don’t tell” dismissals, a move Defense Secretary Robert Gates said would ensure fairness and professionalism in those cases.
But critics blasted the changes as a unofficial moratorium on discharges, saying the burden of proof to prosecute gay troops was so high that only those looking for a way to leave the service would ever be processed out.
Pentagon officials confirmed that since those rules went into effect on Oct. 21, this airman is the only person dismissed from the military because of sexual orientation.
In December, Congress approved plans to repeal the 18-year-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” law, and service officials have been holding training sessions for the last four months to explain the change in regulations to servicemembers.
However, the repeal won’t be finalized until after the Pentagon and White House certify that troops are ready for the change, and no timeline has been set for when that will occur.
More than 14,500 troops have been dismissed from the military under “don’t ask, don’t tell” since 1993.
Stars and Stripes reporter Kevin Baron contributed to this report.