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From an Airman: Why 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Doesn't Work for Me

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December 18, 2010

(Kristoffer Berrien has served in the U.S. Air Force nearly 17 years as an Avionics Specialist on multiple aircraft. Currently a reservist stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., Kristoffer lives in the Sacramento area with his wife, who is also in the Air Force, and three children. He has been deployed in support of numerous operations, including Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom, and Joint Forge. His comments are his alone, made as civilian not a member of the military, and do not reflect the views of the Air Force or Department of Defense in any way. He’s also a member of the board of directors of the ACLU of Sacramento.)

When I put on my uniform and go to work, I’m simply doing what small part I can to protect this country I love so dearly. I work alongside men and women I trust with my life. It has never once crossed my mind that if the airman next to me is gay I should put any less faith in his ability to do the job.

Because I am in the military, I am a person who “don’t ask, don’t tell” directly affects, not some pundit who posts comments on the internet and easily passes judgment. I have served nearly 20 years of my life in support of this country and sacrificed much for my service, yet I’m conflicted. Though proud to say I am a member of the greatest military force in the world, I’m ashamed of the way we treat a small minority of our service members who feel exactly the same way I do about this country and about serving it.

I am not required by law to lie or hide who I am from my fellow airmen because I am not gay. I have no worries about discussing who I’m interested in, dating, or married to. We in the military are just like everybody else in this country. We have friends, we talk about our dreams, and we seek companionship. Imagine taking that freedom away from someone; forcing them to conceal who they really are because it might make some of us feel uncomfortable.

The military is a diverse force and its members share varying viewpoints; in this way it’s not unlike the civilian population. Of course, there are stereotypes and prejudices about gays at every level, but the more people become informed and aware gay people are our friends and coworkers, the more attitudes change.

As a supervisor in the Air Force frequently tasked to evaluate job performance, I understand the importance of focusing on a person’s character and work history, and would not give a thought to their sexual orientation.

During temporary duty assignments, you form a bond and become close with the personnel you are working with. Often there is only one individual assigned per specialty and you count on that person to do his or her job and likewise they count on you. We rely on each other, not just for specific military expertise, but also as travel companions and as friends.

In my experience, after developing the friendship and trust of a fellow airman over many years and deployments, it’s often they can finally open up and discuss their true identity. This conversation is never taken lightly and often confirms something I may have suspected already.

I read and hear news reports about gay people currently serving in today’s military, and people talk as though it were an abstract idea. Gay men and lesbians may be serving among us, but the military can’t know for sure. The fact is, gay people are everywhere in the military, including the Air Force. They are flying multimillion dollar aircraft, standing guard at the gate entrances, processing pay documents, and attending to wounded airmen.

One experience I had solidified the fact that sexual orientation has no effect on trust, intelligence and professionalism. In one squadron, the head crew chief of an aircraft was a lesbian as well as an incredible airwoman. She was known for her aircraft being immaculately tended to as well as having a stellar mission capable rate. This is the bottom line of aircraft maintenance in the Air Force: getting your plane off the ground and the mission accomplished. When we sign off the aircraft’s forms stating the aircraft is safe to fly, pilots can take off in confidence, not caring about the sexual orientation of its maintenance crew.

The Air Force has afforded me many opportunities in life. I’m a walking advertisement for recruitment because of my long and rewarding career. Some may question the wisdom of a service member with so much time invested and a promising career ahead openly discussing “don’t ask, don’t tell”. But, as a father and example to three young boys, as a career airman, and most importantly an American citizen, I truly believe that we cannot be afraid to stand up and be vocal for what we believe in.

In my personal opinion, the Air Force and Department of Defense are doing the best they can to not tolerate discrimination and to not go on witch hunts. They are merely following a policy that as the recently released Pentagon report shows, a majority of its members do not support.

I watch the news and feel powerless, wondering if this is finally the time “don’t ask, don’t tell” will end. This policy has haunted my conscience throughout my entire career.

I just hope by the time I honorably retire, I will be retiring from a military that treats all of its valuable men and women equally. This basic freedom is at the heart of why I joined the military in the first place and what makes this country worth fighting for.

Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is now a stand-alone bill that has passed the House and could be voted on in the Senate as early as Saturday. Please join with Kristoffer and the ACLU in telling Congress to get the job done this year. Repeal DADT NOW!

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