Fighting for Freedom

By Cheryl Jacques, HRC President, C. Dixon Osburn, SLDN
Executive Director, and A.J. Rogue, AVER President

We've all heard the stories of brave soldiers, fighting for
freedom. But what about our patriotic gay, lesbian, bisexual and
transgender soldiers? All too often, these stories go unmentioned.
Stories like these:

When 1st Lt. Gina Foringer's convoy hit a landmine in Somalia,
they were caught in sniper fire. After sending her team to apprehend the
sniper, they managed to escape. Foringer was awarded a Purple Heart.

Lt. Col. William Winnewisser served in the Army for more than 20
years, burying himself in military work, leading as a battalion
commander and hoping that he would never have to dismiss a soldier
solely because they were gay.

Cheryl Ann Costa, spent almost 10 years in the U.S. Military –
first in the U.S. Air Force and then the Navy. She spliced cables in
Vietnam, worked on nuclear submarines and kept silent about her gender
identity, knowing she wouldn't be able to serve if the military knew she
was transsexual.

Joe Barrows was a Specialist in the U.S. Army during Vietnam. In
1970, he was placing electronic sensors along jungle trails south of Da
Nang. Now he wonders why electronic warfare has advanced so much, but
military policy concerning GLBT soldiers has not.

Without a doubt, these veterans are our nation's heroes.
According to the Urban Institute, at least 1 million GLBT veterans are
living in the United States. They risk their lives, and some give their
lives, while serving under a discriminatory policy.

As we commemorate Memorial Day 2004, we should remember all the
service members who sacrificed their lives, and we should take a special
moment to remember the GLBT soldiers who lost their lives and whose
service is forgotten. They served their country proudly and honorably,
but they have also served in the face of 50 years of institutionalized
discrimination by the U.S. government and military against GLBT
soldiers.

This Memorial Day, let's honor their lives and service. Let's
also vow to do what we can to ensure that others who serve with untold
courage don't have to also carry with them the weight of serving in
silence.

With the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban in effect and regulations
that allow discharges based on gender identity, the service of hundreds
of thousands of GLBT Americans is being lost.

We must talk to our friends, our families and our co-workers
about the discrimination that exists. Approximately 10,000 service
members – serving in every aspect of the military – have been discharged
in 10 years under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." These discharges have cost
taxpayers between $250 million and $1.2 billion.

Our national security is at risk, our economy is suffering and
Americans are risking their lives daily in Iraq and Afghanistan. But
unjustifiable policies are still in place that dismiss hundreds of
highly skilled soldiers every year and preclude the service of so many
more who know they cannot sacrifice their personal lives to serve their
country.

According to a December 2003 Gallup Poll, 79 percent of
Americans believe that openly gay people should serve in the U.S.
military. We need to make sure that sentiment makes its way to Capitol
Hill and the President.

This week, the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the Human
Rights Campaign and American Veterans for Equal Rights published a
compilation of veterans' stories. "Documenting Courage: Gay, Lesbian,
Bisexual and Transgender Veterans Speak Out" contains accounts of brave
GLBT soldiers who served in the face of discriminatory law and
regulations.

"Documenting Courage" (available at
www.hrc.org/documentingcourage )
is a great tool not only to remember the valor of GLBT veterans, but
also to get the conversation started. Give it to family members, friends
and co-workers and talk to them about the discrimination GLBT soldiers
face. And then get them to take the next step – talk to their members of
Congress about how current law and regulations are wrong.

It's time for American soldiers who are risking their lives for
the freedom of others to also be given their own freedom. SLDN, HRC and
AVER will stand together until that day becomes a reality. But we can't
do it alone. Your voices are key to winning this battle. Join us today.

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