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Back in action: after joint chiefs of staff chairman Peter Pace called homosexuality immoral, seven retired officers came out. Their new duty? Showing America how honorable gay service members are .

"For the first 36 hours we couldn't keep up with all of the e-mails and telephone calls," remembers retired Army chaplain Col. Paul W. Dodd. He's talking about the explosion of outrage that swept the ranks of gay and gay-friendly veterans after Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, opined that "homosexual acts" are "immoral" and thus unacceptable in the military.

With his incendiary comments, made during a March 12 interview with the Chicago Tribune's editorial board, Pace went beyond the language of policy to the personal. He insulted the honor of gay soldiers. Dodd--who received the Legion of Merit, the Meritorious Service Medal, and numerous other awards in his 21 years of active duty and 10 years in the Army Reserve and National Guard--decided to mount a counteroffensive.

So did half a dozen of his buddies. On March 16, Dodd and six other highly decorated retired military officers came out publicly to protest Pace's remarks as well as his support for the military's ban on openly gay service members.

The magnificent seven--the nickname is hard to resist--aren't the first gay vets to speak out. But their perfectly timed action reflects well on the savvy of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, where all seven officers serve as honorary board members. Based in Washington, D.C., SLDN is dedicated to the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." And with his incautious comment, Pace handed the advocacy group a premium target.

"If he had just said 'don't ask, don't tell' is a good policy, it would have been a nonevent," says Capt. Joan E. Darrah, who served on the staff of the Director of Naval Intelligence and has also been lauded (Legion of Merit awards: three; Navy Commendation medals: three).

"But saying we were immoral has energized people."

The seven officers were corresponding among themselves about jointly coming out even before the Pace incident, but they wanted to wait until they could make the greatest impact.

As SLDN communications director Steve Ralls puts it, the Joint Chiefs chairman "created a media opportunity." In the days following Pace's remarks SLDN was flooded with protests from service members both retired and on active duty. "Some of the most poignant messages we received were from families of gays and lesbians serving," Ralls says. "They felt his comments were a slap in the face of their loved ones, some of them in Iraq."

The officers pulled no punches in their statement. "Does Genera] Pace believe we are immoral, or that our service was unacceptable?" it reads. "Does he appreciate the sacrifice and dedication of every patriot in our armed forces, regardless of their sexual orientation? General Pace ... owes an apology to our men and women on the frontlines and their families."

Pace chose not to apologize, offering instead the feeble explanation that he should have spoken strictly about "don't ask, don't tell" as a policy--which he claims is working well--and not his personal views on gay people.

The officers form an impressive fighting unit. All seven completed most or all of their service before the 1993 advent of "don't ask, don't tell" and had remained firmly closeted throughout their military careers. Some of them had been married and have children and grandchildren. Now, in the private sector, they serve with distinction as executives, academics, and counselors.

Capt. Robert Dockendorff, 69, a former Navy Reserve supply officer who was stationed on the Cambodian border during the Vietnam War, is a former president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club in San Francisco. Capt. Mike Rankin, 70, served as a Navy medical officer for 24 years, including a 10-year stint as chief of psychiatry at the Oakland VA Medical Center. He is now a professor at George Washington University's medical school. Capt. Sandy Geiselman, 56, served as White House liaison to the secretary of the Navy.

The officers' joint coming-out is part of an ongoing effort in Washington to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," a campaign that seems to be gaining ground despite--or perhaps because of--Pace's loathsome remarks. "Ironically, in giving his 'defense' of the policy, he's moved us closer to repeal than anyone in a long time," says Ralls, who expects hearings on the policy to take place in the House of Representatives later this spring.

And although Democratic representative Marty Meehan of Massachusetts is leaving public office to become chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, the bill he authored and spearheaded--the Military Enhancement Readiness Act, which includes a provision repealing "don't ask, don't tell"--continues to gather steam, in part thanks to Eric Alva, the first U.S. service member injured in the Iraq War, who made headlines by coming out earlier this year.

These seven officers enter the battle as the latest--but surely not the last--reinforcements. "I remember being thrilled when [Col.] Margarethe Cammermeyer came out," Darrah says of the highest-ranking military officer discharged to date for being gay. "You always think you're the only person doing this. Then you start to realize lots of good people are the same way you are. I feel badly for them, but the only people who can fight this fight are people who are no longer in the military."

Officer: Capt. Sandy Geiselman, U.S. Navy Reserve

Age and location: 56, Alexandria, Va.

Dates of service: 1973-2002

Notable experience: First woman battalion commander at the Navy's Officer Candidate

School: director of the White House Liaison Office for the Secretary of the Navy; commanded three different reserve units, including one recalled for Operation Desert Storm

Selected awards: Meritorious Service Medal, Navy Commendation Medal

On "don't ask, don't tell": "I was never worried until intelligence came to review me about my ex-husband. The interviewer said he heard the divorce was due to my being gay."

Officer: Capt. Joan E. Darrah, U.S. Navy

Age and location: 55, Alexandria, Va.

Dates of service: 1973-2002

Notable experience: Submarine analyst and action officer at the Naval Intelligence Processing System Support Activity; Naval War College graduate; chief of staff and deputy commander for the Office of Naval Intelligence

Selected awards: Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Navy Commendation Medal, Navy Achievement Medal

On "don't ask, don't tell": "I was at the Pentagon on 9/11. I had a partner of 16 years, and I realized if l were killed, she'd be the last to know."

Officer: Capt. Robert D. Dockendorff, U.S. Navy Reserve

Age and location: 69, San Francisco

Dates of service: 1962-1988

Notable experience: Served as a supply officer in Vietnam; commanding officer of a material transportation office unit; logistics officer for the Military Sealift Command, Pacific Detachment

Selected awards: Navy Commendation Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, Expert Rifleman Medal

On "don't ask, don't tell": "Not under the current political regime but under the next presidency we will see change. Not in 15 years either--I think much sooner than that."

Officer: Col, Stewart Bornhoft, U.S. Army

Age and location: 60, Southern California

Dates of service: 1969-1995

Notable experience: West Point graduate; platoon leader in Vietnam; deputy task force commander of a 4,500-member engineer unit for the USAREUR Range Upgrade program, the largest troop construction project ever undertaken by the Corps of Engineers in peacetime; defense coordinating officer for the Secretary of the Army during the rescue and recovery effort following the April 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City

Selected awards: Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal

On "don't ask, don't tell": It "forces people to tell half-truths. If you can't tell the truth, it's not honorable. What you did over the weekend becomes a stinger question that forces lying, It erodes the basis of trust, which is the foundation of unit cohesion."

Officer: Capt. Robert Michael Rankin, MD, U.S. Navy

Age and location: 70, Arlington, Va.

Dates of service: 1964--1996

Notable experience: Chief of psychiatry at the Oakland VA Medical Center for 10 years, where he created and oversaw mental health programs for active-duty service members and veterans living with HIV or AIDS

Selected awards: Navy Commendation Medal, Vietnam Service Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal

On "don't ask, don't tell": At the VA hospital "I made darn sure active-duty Army and Navy folks could see me and not have any mention of [their sexuality] in their records."

Officer: Col. E.A. Leonard, U.S. Army

Age and location: 66, Virginia Notable experience: Served more than three years in combat in Vietnam and Laos with various divisions; worked as a military diplomat at five U.S. embassies; affiliated with the Defense Intelligence Agency for 2D-plus years

Selected awards: Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Air Medal, Joint Services Commendation Medal, Army Commendation Medal, U.S., French, and Royal Laotian parachute wings

On "don't ask, don't tell": "I don't think we should allow the military and civilian brass in the Pentagon to set social policy for the largest and most powerful portion of the U.S. government based on their upbringing."

Officer: Chaplain (Col.) Paul W. Dodd, U.S. Army [not present at The Advocate's photo shoot because of his duties at Austin's Metropolitan Community Church, where he is pastor)

Age: 65

Dates of service: 1977-1998

Notable experience: Division support command chaplain with the 101st Airborne Division; hospital chaplain at the 130th Station Hospital in Heidelberg, Germany; deputy chief of the Department of Ministry and Pastoral Care at Waiter Reed Army Medical Center

Selected awards: Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon

On "don't ask, don't tell": "It wasn't unusual for soldiers to come to me and talk about their sexuality. [But] when people asked me who to talk to, I said they had to be very careful Even with chaplains, soldiers have to be extremely cautious."
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Title Annotation:MILITARY
Author:Weinstein, Steve
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Apr 24, 2007
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