(Host) Friday opponents of the controversial ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy fanned out across Capitol Hill.
Their mission: to make the case for repealing the law banning openly gay soldiers from military service.
Elizabeth Wynne Johnson tagged along with a Vermont law student, who also happens to be a former soldier, as she knocked on lawmakers’ doors.
(Johnson) Kathy Stickel is a second year student at Vermont Law School. She’s having her own personal ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ moment on an issue that hits close to home.
(Stickel) “I was in the army and I saw the problems that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell causes. So, I wanted to come here to say, let’s get rid of it.”
(Johnson) The ban on military service by openly gay, lesbian and bisexual Americans started in 1993. The policy punishes people for who they are, not what they do, says Stickel.
She recalls the case of two fellow soldiers who were having very similar problems. When soldiers deploy they have to sign over legal access to their finances to a loved one. Both of these soldiers had girlfriends back home who were running through their bank accounts.
(Stickel) “Well, Bryce is male. So we fixed that in 20 minutes. The sergeant called back to America, got the girl on the phone, said, ‘You’re going to stop this right now.’ But Connie, exact same situation, we could do nothing.”
(Johnson) Connie couldn’t do anything without revealing the nature of her relationship with the woman who was stealing from her.
(Stickel) “She would have been outing herself. And the law says they MUST be separated from the service. And she had 18 years in. So her choice is, protecting her bank account and protecting her pension. … People think Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is about sex. Sometimes it’s just about banking.”
(Johnson) That’s the kind of story Stickel wants to tell to as many members of Congress as she can on this day.
(Crowd sounds) “Thank you so much to all of you who have come in from all around the country for this wonderful lobby day on Capitol Hill. To tell Congress it is time to repeal, to build support to repeal ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”’ (applause)
(Johnson) They’re here to lobby in support of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act. The event is organized by the Service Members Legal Defense Fund. The crowd splits into small teams for what they call “ground force visits.” The battle plan is to hit the office of every member of the House and Senate to make their pitch.
(Announcer) “OK, our people are from the following states: Pennsylvania, Illinois, Washington, Texas …”
(Johnson) It’s Friday, though. Congress has closed up shop for the week. So there’s a lot of this.
(Office sound) “Is the Congresswoman in today?” “She’s not. She flew back today…”
(Johnson) In the end, this two-day assault on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would yield a couple of productive encounters with congressional staffers. And plenty of promises to carefully consider the issue.
Supporters of the repeal say they have 142 votes in the House so far. But former Sergeant Kathy Stickel and other policy critics face an uphill battle against an entrenched Pentagon policy as long as fighting continues in Iraq.
For VPR News, I’m Elizabeth Wynne Johnson on Capitol Hill.