August 11, 2011 at 9:29 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Discharged gay troops ready to re-enlist

Thomas Cook

For Thomas Cook, deciding whether or not to re-enlist in the U.S. military after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is off the books is a no-brainer.

Cook, a Houston resident who was discharged in 2004 under the anti-gay law, said he “absolutely” plans to rejoin the armed forces on the day that the military’s gay ban is lifted.

“That’s the life I was destined to lead,” Cook said. “I think military service is in my blood and my past experience in the military — I absolutely loved it. I wouldn’t have changed anything about it. I come from a family of military people, and I’m looking forward to going back into the military as soon as I can — Sept. 20.”

Cook, now 29, said he doesn’t intend to enter the same field in the military that he held upon his discharge, nor will he enter the same branch of service. He served in military intelligence in the Army prior to his separation, but Cook said he plans to join the Air Force nursing field to make use of the education he has since received in that area.

On July 22, President Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen certified that the U.S. military is ready for open service in accordance with the repeal law signed in December, starting the 60-day period for when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be a thing of the past on Sept. 20.

Gay service members discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will be able to re-enter the armed forces from that point forward. Some service members whose separations received media attention said their affinity for military service leaves no doubt in their mind that they’ll re-enter the military as soon as possible.

Cook, who first joined the Army in 2001, said he feels compelled to continue military service even though he was kicked out after he declared his sexual orientation. In 2003, the team leader in Cook’s company said during a training exercise he’d kill anyone in his crew whom he found out was gay. Cook reported the team leader’s remarks to his battalion commander and said the threat alarmed him because he is gay. The confession started Cook’s discharge proceedings, and he was ultimately separated from the Army under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on Jan. 20, 2004.

Seeking to rejoin the military, Cook was lead plaintiff in Cook v. Gates, a lawsuit challenging “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” that was filed by Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. However, the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts and the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in response to the challenge, forcing Cook to wait for legislative repeal before he could re-enter the military.

Cook said he bears no ill-will toward the military even though he was expelled from his position simply for stating his sexual orientation and was unable to reclaim his role through the litigation in which he was lead plaintiff.

“The organization itself has the policy in place, but the people I worked with didn’t necessarily believe in the policy,” Cook said. “I worked with people and the other soldiers that believe the same things I believed, which is anyone and everyone that is eligible to serve and is capable of serving should be allowed.”

Other service members whose discharges received prominent attention also said they intend to rejoin the armed forces after the gay ban is lifted — but aren’t feeling the same need to re-enlist on Sept. 20 as soon as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is off the books.

Alex Nicholson (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, is planning to re-enter the military as a member of the Reserves and, after obtaining a law degree, pursue a career as a military lawyer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

“It’s still a lifestyle and a set of people that I am comfortable around and I’ve always had an affinity for,” Nicholson said. “It’s hard to explain the phenomenon and the fraternity that it is.”

Like Cook, Nicholson plans to take a different position than his previous role. Nicholson was an Army intelligence officer prior to his separation at the age of 20 under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2002. A fellow service member outed him to his unit after she read a letter he had written in Portuguese to a man he dated before he joined the Army.

After forming Servicemembers United in 2005, Nicholson became active in the discussion with the White House and Congress that led to legislative repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Nicholson was also the sole named plaintiff in the lawsuit Log Cabin Republicans v. United States, which led the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to institute an injunction this year barring further discharges under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Despite his plan to rejoin the military, Nicholson, now 30, said he plans to hold off on re-enlisting for about two or three years as he continues his advocacy work because he doesn’t believe being in the military while acting as a watchdog for gay troops is appropriate.

“I just don’t feel like I would be able to continue to do the job that I do by doing that,” Nicholson said. “That’s going to add a whole additional layer of complexity to the political work, or the watchdog work that we do, if I were to do something like that.”

Also planning to re-enlist is Mike Almy, a former Air Force communications officer who was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2006. He said he wants back in the armed forces because he has an affinity for it.

“It’s what I’ve done for 13 years,” Almy said. “I miss it, the people, the camaraderie, the mission and want to finish my career.”

After a fellow service member read a private e-mail revealing his sexual orientation and reported the information to his commander, Almy was discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He never made a public statement that he was gay, but was nonetheless separated.

Almy, 40, received significant attention as a service member discharged under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” after testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last year against the military’s gay ban and taking on tough questioning from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The best path that Almy said he sees for re-entering the armed forces is the resolution of the lawsuit in which he is lead plaintiff, Almy v. United States. The case, filed by SLDN and pending before the U.S. District Court of Northern California, seeks to reinstate him and other plaintiffs in the armed forces.

The case, Almy said, represents his best chance to return to the Air Force as an officer because of difficulties in the path ahead if he were to re-enlist at a recruiting station.

“It’s very difficult as an officer to go back on active duty, and that has absolutely nothing to do with ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ but just the fact that being separated and out for a couple years — coupled with the fact that there’s a drawdown — so that’s why we got the lawsuit in the works,” Almy said.

Mike Almy (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Almy added he’s expecting a resolution to the lawsuit in a couple of months and not the exact same position he held upon discharge, but a position that is comparable and the same rank.

Upon his discharge under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Almy lost all the benefits he would have had if he had been allowed to retire on his own accord. His reinstatement in the armed forces would enable him to reclaim those benefits.

“I have none whatsoever,” Almy said. “That’s what we’re trying to get as well. Assuming we’re successful in the lawsuit and win, and get reinstatement, then we’ll pick up where we left off basically, so I’ll get those benefits, go on to finish my career and ultimately retire.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • RE Mr. Almy: One implies no justification of the evils of DADT when he points out that anyone capable of reaching the rank of major should have known that there is no such thing as a “private e-mail” on a government computer which he has conceded he was using [or even on a personal computer used in one’s barracks]. That he continues his contention to the contrary is curious for many reasons, not the least of which is this statement from his joint lawsuit:

    “During Mr. Almy’s deployment in Iraq that began in 2004, the Air Force prohibited Airmen from using private email accounts. Airmen in Iraq were forced to use government-provided computers and email accounts for personal oorrespondence. … Mr. Almy therefore used his Air Force email account for personal emails.” – Michael D. Almy, Anthony J. Loverde, and Jason D. Knight v. United States Department of Defense, et al. December 13, 2010.

    The assertion in the lawsuit is not that his e-mails WERE private, but that he claims he had an “expectation of privacy” [as well as a violation of Air Force procedures in how they became aware of them]. That contradicts any credible reason for anyone to believe that DADT would suddenly be “fair” in this war zone instance when e-mails, files, photos, etc., found on one’s personally owned computer within one’s barracks are legally subject to search.

    What is indisputable is that discharge under DADT did not require a “PUBLIC statement” that one is gay. The “at least one email from Mr. Almy to another man discussing same-sex conduct” acknowledged in his lawsuit was all that was necessary. Mr. Almy might have been inexplicably ignorant of that at the time, but his various recent activities making him one of SLDN’s poster boys should have given him multiple opportunities to learn.

    The passage about “benefits” may only be poorly expressed as they can mean a variety of things. Having received an “honorable discharge,” he would NOT have lost, e.g., access to “GI Bill” education assistance or free/lost cost medical care at Veterans Administration facilities. What his lawsuit does address is the fact that he lost the opportunity to serve until he was eligible for retirement. Upon retirement, he would have drawn an annual pension worth several hundred thousand dollars over his expected lifetime.

  • Not unexpected.

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