Why DOMA is Indefensible
How the policy undermines America’s military readiness.
Terra Lathrop was in the midst of what was looking like an ideal military career. A Navy petty officer second class, she was a trained rescue diver with combat cred from her time with an Army mortar crew in Iraq. America's newly elected president had pledged to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, meaning her sexual orientation would no longer be an obstacle toward her advancement through the ranks. Her future in the service seemed bright and limitless.
So she quit.
She had a lot of reasons, including combat stress and the additional strain of hiding her sexual orientation during the Don't Ask, Don't Tell years, but one reason stood out from all the others: "Because I could never have a family."
The Defense of Marriage Act bars the Navy from recognizing any woman Lathrop might one day marry as her spouse, a troubling dilemma for a soldier in wartime. DOMA played a significant part in Lathrop's departure from the Navy and in her subsequent hesitation to reenlist. DOMA-related retention problems like Lathrop's case are just one reason that soldiers from all ranks and all walks of life say DOMA is not just unfair to LGBT service members, it's also bad for military readiness, bad for morale, bad for retention and in the end, bad for national security.
Young, ambitious LGBT recruits usually don't think ahead about starting families, but five or six years down the line, when they meet the right person, they end up having to choose between careers and a future home life, and very often it's the service that loses out. When they walk away from the military they take years of expensive training and valuable expertise with them. "Housing, feeding, schooling, the teaching and instruction and training hours; the training pipeline can take years," Lathrop says. "All of that is not something you can just pass on to the next person in line."
Lathrop illustrates the problem with an exercise from her days as a diving instructor: "I'd ask my students in the pool, 'If someone were drowning who would you want to save them right now, me or you?' And they would say, 'We would want you.'" The point was to motivate her students to become faster and stronger swimmers, but after leaving the service it became an uncomfortable reminder of what was lost; Lathrop isn't around to save swimmers now. "Why wouldn't you still want me there?" she asks, "Why would you want Plan B?" Probably we wouldn't; unless Plan A left because she had a family to think about.
That waste of assets makes Joe Sestak bristle. A retired three-star admiral and two-term former Pennsylvania congressman (the highest ranking military official ever elected to Congress), Sestak says that the campaign to undo DOMA is an issue just as much about security as equality. "What if we are losing good individuals because we can’t take care of their spouses? Why do you think the military gives healthcare to families? Because we're a bunch of socialists and liberals?"
"We do it because it pays a great dividend to our nation. We need Seal Team 6 ready to go, and people like that stay in the military because their families are covered. That’s a significant part of military readiness, and without it retention will be harmed. It's an unnecessary long-term degradation of our overall readiness."
Sestak's daughter was diagnosed with brain cancer when she was three years old, and he credits his Navy benefits with helping save her life. "We were rugged individualists in the Navy, but we all had healthcare," he told the New York Times in 2010.
But nobody ever expected war to be easy, did they? How does Sestak respond to those who argue that it's a soldier’s duty to serve even if the circumstances aren't necessarily fair? "That might work for a very short period of time," he says. "But where do you stop saying to people, ‘You are going to be treated differently’? Consistency is a key quality of leadership. If you are inconsistent, [soldiers] lose confidence, and the system deteriorates."
Sestak with Senator Chris Dodd (left)
Casey McLaughlin puts it even more bluntly: "You can't have unit cohesion when you have two classes of troops. It really does look like there's a second class of service members when you have DOMA in place." Casey and her wife, Major Shannon McLaughlin, a JAG in the Massachusetts National Guard, made a particularly stark statement about their second-class treatment when they sued the Pentagon over DOMA in 2011.
"Military life is not easy for anyone," the major admits. "That's why we have all these things that help. When you take most of those away, the gay and lesbian families are disadvantaged."
But it's about more than just fair treatment for families. Major McLaughlin says that what the rest of us might not realize is that military family benefits are not just a workplace perk or a form of payment; they're also a crucial psychological tool to help maintain a soldier's readiness. Take that away, she says, and you have soldiers in combat who can't perform on the level we want them to.
"Shannon would not have peace of mind going into a war zone knowing that our family wouldn't be taken are of," Casey says. "Service members overseas already have enough to deal with."
The McLaughlins, with their twin son and daughter.
It's not just the McLaughlins who think that family-related anxiety harms readiness in the field. It's all in the handbook; literally. The U.S. Army's "Soldier's and Family Member's Handbook" reads: "Mission readiness requires family preparedness." The guide quotes Pete Geren, former secretary of the Army, as saying: "The health of our all-volunteer force depends on the health of the family.”
"We have a standard group of briefings and training that has changed over the years, but one thing that has remained constant is we have always said you have to have your head in the game, you have to address all of the things at home," says Master Sergeant Mike Kent. "We tell people, make sure your insurance is up to date, make sure you have someone to cut the grass, make sure your spouse knows how to change the air filter in the furnace, it goes that far, every little thing."
Few people would know more about maintaining readiness in a war zone than Kent. He has 28 years in the Army (he plans to retire June 6), many spent as a detachment sergeant in Iraq, entrusted with maintaining morale in combat deployment after deployment. Family concerns and the efficacy of benefits are not minor considerations or mere perks, Kent says. "You can't have a split focus when you're out there, you can't afford it."
When a gay or lesbian soldier comes to Kent with family issues, he can't employ many of the tools he'd normally use to reassure them, because the same guarantees aren't in place. Instead he has to tell them to make do as best they can. Many end up leaving; those who stay can't possibly perform at their highest possible level with these issues preying on their minds. "I can’t imagine if my wife did not know what to do while I deployed, if she knew where to get help but couldn't get on base to get it," Kent says, plainly baffled. "To know that help is available to some people but not others, that’s just unacceptable."
Major McLaughlin with daughter Grace.
The armed forces shed countless LGBT members during eighteen years of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Many are now considering reenlisting. The problem is that life hasn't stood still for them since their discharge. Kristen Kavanaugh, for example, is a retired Marine Corps captain and the founder of MAP (Military Acceptance Project, a non-profit aimed at safeguarding diversity in the armed forces). She separated from the Marines in 2007; she began dating her partner in 2009. The two are awaiting the Supreme Court's ruling on Prop 8 to see if they can get legally married in California. If they do, it'll be a happy day for everyone—except the Marine Corps. Once the ink is dry on the wedding license, the USMC may have to say goodbye to Captain Kavanaugh for good.
"My partner and I have talked about reenlisting," she says, "but until DOMA goes away it's not the best situation for me. It makes you think twice." Even as she says it she's clearly pained. Kavanaugh left the Marines because of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Six years later, everything about her says she wants to be a Marine again. "My heart lies in service to this country," she says. But like anyone, she can't have her heart in two places at once. "How can I follow into that [reenlistment] knowing that it just doesn't add up for me, knowing that it’s not good for my partner?"
And, like the others, she worries about how much cases like hers may cost in the long run. "You're diminishing your numbers with legislation at a time when you have people who have been deployed seven, eight, ten times. When you start adding up all of those people who otherwise might stay or come back without DOMA, it's just astronomical."
Lathrop, too, has considered picking up where she left off, but hesitates. "I've considered reenlisting under the reserves, but I wouldn't go career, not the way things are. Now, if everything with DOMA did change, then that's something I would consider. I had eight years in and a stellar career going; I don't want to turn my back on that."
Meanwhile, the McLaughlins count weeks on the calendar until the Supreme Court rules on DOMA and wonder what the future may bring. "I may leave," Major McLaughlin says, if the court upholds DOMA. She doesn't want to, but if the status quo continues it's difficult to imagine going on like this. "I mean, I'm suing my employer. It's not a comfortable position. I'm a lawyer, I'm not inherently a risk-taker. But everyone has to start their lives sometime."
Captain Kavanaugh (center) on a recent trip to Washington D.C.
The US military exists as a volunteer-only service, constantly on call in an age of seemingly ubiquitous global conflict. The necessity to recruit and retain volunteers and to maintain readiness in and out of combat zones has never been more salient. At this critical time, the Defense of Marriage Act pits LGBT soldiers' family interests and sense of duty against one another; they can fully commit to one or the other, but under the law, never to both. There are no winners in such an impossible conflict, but there are clear losers: The Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marine Corps and the United States.
For Joe Sestak, it’s all about what we have to lose. "An Egyptian officer once said to me, ‘You know, you treat your enlisted men differently in this country than we do. You treat them like they’re equal.’ When that equality breaks down, you lose something."
And he’s right, we do lose something: service.
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