For Sara Isaacson, separation from the University of North Carolina’s Army ROTC program because of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” comes with a price tag of $79,265.
Isaacson told the Washington Blade she understands the U.S. military wants to protect its investment in training her, but she hopes to repay her debt by serving in the armed forces as opposed to paying the expenses out of pocket.
“I have always said the goal is still to serve my country and I want to be able to fulfill my commitment by serving in uniform,” she said. “The military right now is not allowing me to do that, so I don’t think it’s fair that they’re asking for the tuition back.”
Isaacson, 22 and a lesbian, said she hasn’t yet graduated from college and doesn’t know how she could pay the money that the U.S. military is seeking.
“I’m a few classes away from graduating and I don’t have $80,000 to repay the military,” she said.
Facing recoupment charges after discharge under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a problem that continues to plague many service members even after President Obama signed legislation allowing for repeal and the Pentagon has moved ahead with lifting the military’s gay ban.
The issue received renewed attention last month when Iraq war veteran and former Army Lt. Dan Choi, who gained notoriety after he handcuffed himself to the White House gates in protest over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” informed media outlets that the Army wants him to repay $2,500 of the unearned portion of his Army contract.
In an open letter to Obama, Choi states that he is refusing to pay the Army the money.
“It would be easy to pay the $2,500 bill and swiftly done with this diseased chapter of my life, where I sinfully deceived and tolerated self-hatred under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” he writes. “But I choose to cease wrestling, to cease the excuses, to cease the philosophical grandstanding and ethical gymnastics of political expediency in the face of moral duty.”
The recoupment issue only comes into play for troops discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in certain situations.
In one situation, like Choi’s, troops can be forced to pay back all or a portion of the bonuses they received upon reenlistment.
In another scenario, service members can be required to pay tuition grants afforded to them if they don’t complete their education in a training program such as ROTC or post-graduate medical or dental school.
Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said his organization has had more success in mitigating recoupment for troops who were outed by a third party rather than those who outed themselves.
“In many of those cases, we’ve been able to argue on the service member’s behalf that they would have completed their employment contract and agreement but for the intervening factor by a third party,” he said.
Third party outings were restricted early last year when Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued new guidance for the enforcement of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Sarvis said the case of Hensala v. Air Force confirmed the U.S. military can seek recoupment fees if service members out themselves. In 2003, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case and remanded it to district court.
Isaacson is among the service members who are facing discharge because they volunteered their sexual orientation while enrolled in a ROTC program.
In January 2010, about three-and-a-half months before she would have been commissioned as second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Issacson said she was removed from the program after she made the decision to come out to her commanding officer.
“I voluntarily came out to my commanders because I felt like I wasn’t living up to the Army value of integrity by continuing to lie to my commander, all of my peers, to all of the other people in my battalion about something that was so fundamental to who I am,” Isaacson said.
Even though she was never directly asked about her sexual orientation, Isaacson said she felt pressured to mention it when talking with her colleagues about significant others or dating advice.
Isaacson is awaiting appeal on her separation, but the standing decision from the U.S. Army Cadet Command is that she must repay the entire $79,265 that was afforded to her to pay tuition.
“I would like to see them continue with the certification of the repeal in a speedy manner so that people like myself who want to be able to fulfill this obligation that we have to the military can do that through our service,” she said.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said addressing the recoupment has been a priority for his organization since the passage of legislation allowing for “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“It’s not that widespread of a problem, but when it does hit someone, it hits them pretty hard,” Nicholson said. “Sometimes the amounts are so massive, and the people who are subjected to recoupment are so young, that the level of devastating lives is rather disproportionate.”
Nicholson said he’s been “hounding” White House officials on the recoupment issue even prior to signing of repeal legislation.
Part of the reason for keeping the practice in place, Nicholson said, was that the Obama administration didn’t want to take action before the Pentagon working group published its report on implementing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
“Obviously, we realized when that report came out that it was not something they addressed, so we obviously started hounding them again on this,” Nicholson said.
Noting that current law gives the Pentagon discretion over whether or not to collect recoupment fees, Nicholson said ending the practice would be a “simple fix” because it would only require an order from President Obama.
“The easiest thing would be for the president to make the decision to direct the secretary of defense to direct the service secretaries to not elect recoupment in cases of gay discharges,” Nicholson said.
Sarvis said because the courts have weighed in on the issue, SLDN seeks to address those who are facing recoupment fees on an individual basis.
“I don’t think that we’re going to get any across the board remedy or any retroactive remedy from the Defense Department,” Sarvis said. “I think we’ll have to negotiate on a case-by-case basis.”
A White House spokesperson deferred comment to the Defense Department on the recoupment issue. The Pentagon didn’t respond by Blade deadline with a statement.