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Servicemembers readjust to life back in the military after being discharged under DADT

Following his discharge from the U.S. Air Force in 2008 under ''don't ask, don't tell,'' Staff Sgt. Anthony Loverde was hired to work as a military contractor in Iraq and Afghanistan, doing largely the same job he did for the Air Force. Here Loverde is pictured in 2010 at Balad Air Base, Iraq. When he was reinstated in 2012, Loverde became only the second person and the first gay airman to return to active duty since the 2011 repeal of ''don't ask, don't tell.''

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Anthony Loverde felt a twinge of uncertainty as he drove halfway across the country for a second chance at an Air Force career he thought was over.

For seven years, during his first turn in the Air Force, Loverde kept his military colleagues at arm’s length, rarely sharing stories about his personal life in an attempt to keep his sexual orientation secret. His crewmates nicknamed him “vapor” — as soon as his unit returned from a mission, Loverde would disappear.

But in 2008, when he decided to come out to his commander, he was discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell” — the law banning gays from openly serving in the military that was repealed in September 2011.

Then, after four years as a civilian and a legal fight for reinstatement to the service he loved, he was a staff sergeant again. A job as a loadmaster was waiting for him at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. It was May 2012. He didn’t know what to expect.

From 1996 to 2011, more than 14,000 servicemembers were fired from the military under DADT. Loverde and Petty Officer 2nd Class Jase Daniels, who returned to active duty three months after DADT’s repeal, are so far the only two military members from that group to seek and get their jobs back.

Loverde, Daniels and Mike Almy, an Air Force communications officer dismissed under DADT in 2006, teamed up with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and a private law firm to challenge the constitutionality of DADT and sue the Defense Department for reinstatement. All three were vocal advocates for the repeal of DADT.

Each of their cases was individually resolved and a trial was avoided. The Navy and the Air Force agreed to reinstate Daniels and Loverde to the ranks and career fields they had at the time of their discharge, provided they met current military standards. For Loverde, that meant losing 20 pounds.

Almy could have returned to active duty, but opted for a financial settlement and some credit for time lost, since there were no open billets in his former career field.

Acceptance after DADT

Daniels and Loverde say they have found overwhelming support and acceptance from their military colleagues.

Loverde’s initial fears about whether he would be accepted were quickly eased.

“My colleagues know I’m gay. My partner has gone to Christmas parties with me and other squadron events,” Loverde said. “People have accepted him as a normal part of my family. It’s great. There’s no hiding, there’s no lying, no mixing up pronouns.”

When he showed up at his new squadron last summer at Little Rock, after re-enlisting in Sacramento, Calif., he was welcomed with hugs.

“Surprisingly, a lot of friends whom I was stationed with at Germany happened to be there,” he said.

Daniels, a newlywed, has found an equally supportive environment in the Navy. He took his husband to the Navy Ball in Monterey, Calif., in October.

“It’s not a big issue,” he said. “If I happen to talk about my husband, it’s like ‘OK, cool.’ ”

Even as Daniels and Loverde report a smooth transition back to military service, the Pentagon has faced some challenges to integrating gay servicemembers since DADT was repealed, says Mark Mazzone, communications director for SPART*A, an organization serving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender military personnel. Among them are military chaplains opposed to gay marriage and the recent hiring at the U.S. Air Force Academy of a controversial anti-gay activist within its ethics program.

SPART*A’s current focus is pushing for open transgender service, since transgender military members were excluded from DADT’s repeal. The transgender chapter in SPART*A has close to 100 members, active duty and veterans, he said.

“The major battles have been fought,” Mazzone said, but “there’s still a lot of work to do.”

***

Loverde’s battle began early in his Air Force career. He joined at the age of 22, fighting then the notion that he was gay, hoping that the rigors of military life would change him.

When it didn’t, he struggled to live up to the Air Force’s core values of honesty and integrity while trying to hide a major part of his identity.

His boyfriend at the time, during his last assignment at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, “had to be ‘my cousin from the States’ when we ran into people downtown.” Not being married, it was difficult for his partner to find work. The only offer for the civilian flight paramedic was as a busboy at Chili’s.

Loverde also found it difficult not being able to stand up to inadvertent gay slurs in the workplace. When a supervisor occasionally made a homophobic remark, “I couldn’t address it without being a target,” Loverde said.

The tipping point came when he deployed from Ramstein over the Christmas holiday in late 2007. His relationship had failed. Loverde was feeling down but felt he couldn’t talk to anyone about it.

“When you’re on an air crew, you spend a lot of time together,” he said, both flying missions and on downtime between missions while away from the duty station. Loverde’s crewmembers would talk about their significant others back home, conversations Loverde felt he couldn’t share in. “Those experiences were uncomfortable for me, not to be able to be honest with my crews.”

“I had to internalize all this stuff,” he said. “What was hard was seeing all these posters downrange, ‘Don’t bottle it up, just talk to people.’ Well, I can’t talk to people. If I do, I’ll get kicked out.”

When Loverde returned from deployment, he decided to come out to his commander. Though supportive, his commander told him “his hands were tied in that matter, that he was going to refer to legal and that whatever legal said was how he was going to proceed,” Loverde said.

“He told me that the discharge didn’t reflect my service or character, that the squadron wanted to help and support me in the transition back to civilian life,” Loverde said. “It was a very friendly and supportive discharge.”

Though it was hard to walk away from a job he loved, Loverde felt an incredible sense of relief after the conversation with his commander. “I was no longer under this secret thing. I can be honest and start talking to friends about it. It was almost like being free.”

Loverde, 34, encountered some obstacles in trying to get back to the Air Force. His medical records were lost; he was 20 pounds overweight. There were only so many loadmaster slots available per year for returning servicemembers. The process took about eight months.

“I’m very lucky that it’s worked out that I’ve been able to come back in,” he said. “I was prepared to move on. I got to a point where, for me personally, it was better to be open and honest.”

***

Far from feeling free, Almy felt like his life was over when the Air Force confronted him about being a gay airman.

He didn’t know what to tell his stunned family and colleagues when they heard he was getting out of the Air Force. The decorated communications officer at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany had been recommended for promotion to lieutenant colonel. Everyone assumed Almy would follow in the footsteps of his father, a West Point graduate who retired as a colonel.

“I was found out under DADT, but I was not out at all to my family, my friends,” he said.

For 13 years, he had kept quiet about his sexual orientation, both to his family, his non-gay friends and military colleagues. After returning from his last deployment to Iraq in 2005, someone from the unit that replaced his found emails Almy had sent to his then boyfriend on his government-issued computer downrange. The Air Force at the time had restricted all private email accounts and authorized servicemembers to use work email for personal and morale purposes, Almy said.

The Air Force proceeded to search more than 500 personal emails, Almy said, and pulled out a dozen or so damaging ones with respect to DADT.

When his commander at Spangdahlem asked to see him, Almy thought it was for a routine meeting. “I had no idea that this transpired,” he said. “My commander read me the policy on homosexuality. He demanded that I explain the emails. I refused to acknowledge them.”

Almy was devastated. He said he struggled with depression and briefly considered suicide. He was relieved of his job overseeing about 180 airmen in the 606th Air Control Squadron while the investigation pressed forward.

Sixteen months later, he was discharged and escorted off base by military police.

Since then, Almy, 43, has found support from his family and friends after coming out publicly during an interview on National Public Radio in 2010. He’s been ordained to officiate weddings, and last year presided over the gay marriage of a Navy pilot and his partner on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

He’s mostly made peace with not returning to the Air Force.

“It’s a bit of a bitter pill. The repeal obviously came too late to save my career, but I’m very happy they were able to get back on active duty,” he said of Loverde and Daniels.

Living under DADT was “like having a 25-pound weight strapped to your back all the time — that constant nagging fear,” he said. “It’s so rewarding to know that some of my friends, peers, people I know that are still in the military, no longer have that fear or burden.”

What’s different now, he said, is his friend, the Navy pilot, can “put a picture of his spouse on his desk for the first time ever. Something as simple as that, straight people have taken for granted for decades in the military.”

***

Daniels chose to be honest about his homosexuality, and was promptly discharged, then recalled for a deployment to Kuwait. He became known as “the twice-discharged sailor” under DADT.

Daniels had realized he was gay on his wedding night. The product of a religious upbringing, Daniels believed in waiting until after marriage to have sex. He married a fellow sailor and “figured going through with it, would change my feelings,” he said. “That’s not really how it works.

“It was like a ton of bricks when I finally came to terms with my sexuality.”

He sought to get the marriage annulled. The Navy required his commander to sign off on the paperwork. When asked why he wanted an annulment, Daniels was honest. “I was very naïve about the policy,” he said of DADT. “I thought they would see I was a good sailor” and overlook his sexual orientation.

A Hebrew linguist at the time, Daniels was gone from the Navy in about 45 days. “I felt like a complete criminal. They said they were going to do an investigation” and pulled in legal and security officers and his command’s executive officer to question him. “It was really scary.”

That was 2005. Then in July 2006, Daniels — whose name then was Jason Knight — received a letter in the mail that first shocked him, then made him laugh.

The Navy was recalling him for up to a year deployment to Kuwait.

Daniels believes his previous commander must not have finalized the paperwork for an honorable discharge under DADT, which put him on inactive reserve with the possibility of being recalled. Not all dismissals under DADT list homosexual conduct on the discharge papers, military officials have said.

“I was discharged in Georgia. Someone labeled as homosexual by the government” might have a hard time finding a job in the conservative South, Daniels said. “I think he was trying to … make sure I was taken care of.”

Daniels went to Kuwait. “I figured I was getting a second chance. Rather than going back into the ‘closet,’ I was open about who I was, what had happened,” he said.

The command didn’t take steps to discharge him while he was deployed to Kuwait, but Daniels got the Navy’s attention in March 2007, when, after finishing his tour in Kuwait, he publicly challenged remarks by then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, that homosexuality was immoral.

The Navy immediately began the discharge process under DADT, and Daniels was out of the Navy for a second time.

Now, reinstated, Daniels is once again a Navy linguist, having recently completed the Persian-Farsi language course at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif.

He has no regrets. “I love my job in the military, and I wanted to be back in the military,” he said.

He’s headed to a new assignment at Fort Gordon, Ga., with his husband, Matthew Daniels, whom he married in August.

They’ve encountered sporadic negativity, but not from military personnel.

When Matthew went to get his last name on his Social Security card changed, a woman who assisted them “was aghast that ‘they let gays in the military,’” Daniels said. When the couple went to get Matthew an on-base pass, “there were no questions; they congratulated us.”

The attitude on base, he said, seems to be: “If you’re a good sailor, you’re a good sailor that just happens to be gay.”

svan.jennifer@stripes.com

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