Congress is preparing to discuss “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” – the military's policy that bars gays and lesbians from serving openly in the Armed Forces – for the first time since it was instituted fifteen years ago. Discharged gay service members reflect on how the ban has affected them.

On Wednesday, a congressional hearing will call witnesses to discuss the military's policy on gays. A diverse list promises to provide a variety of viewpoints. Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, and Brian Jones, a former sergeant major, will testify in support of the policy.

Donnelly is an outspoken critic of gays in the military. On the website she says, “homosexuals are not eligible to serve in the military,” and “Our nation's military should not be used as a tool to advance the goals of gay activist groups.”

Witnesses likely to testify in favor of repealing the law include: Retired General Vance Coleman, Retired Navy Captain Joan E. Darrah, and Retired Marine Staff Sergeant Eric Alva.

Alva was the first American injured in the Iraq War. The marine was awarded the Purple Heart and was honorably discharged from the Marines. Earlier this year, he came out against the policy when he announced he was gay.

Service members who have been dismissed from the military under the policy will not be heard from on Capitol Hill. But two agreed to speak with On Top Magazine.

Naval Petty Officer 2nd Class Jason Knight was dismissed from the Navy under “Don't Ask” – twice. Trained as a Hebrew linguist, Knight attempted to “normalize” his sexuality at twenty-one by marrying the woman whom he considered his best friend. But on his wedding night, his conscience would not commit to a painful, lifelong deception. Knight asked for an annulment.

Paperwork stemming from the annulment, re-classifying Knight as single, included sexual orientation as the reason for separation. The Navy quickly ordered an investigation and charged him with “homosexual conduct.” The irony of the charge is that Knight had never acted on his sexual orientation. Still, within two weeks he was discharged from the military.

“The problem with the law is that it creates a vicious loop – you must prove you're not gay,” Jason Knight said. “Even straight people have been dismissed because of a compromising photo or spiteful rumor.”

“I received a crazy email,” he says, of a notice in 2006. The Navy recalled Knight back into active duty and sent him to Kuwait. “I loved my Navy career. I wanted to go back. If the Navy needed me and my country needed me, I was going back.”

By this time, however, Knight was living the life of a gay man and was unwilling to return to his previously closeted life. In Kuwait he served openly. “Everybody, including my commander, knew I was gay. It was not an issue,” Knight said.

Jason Knight suddenly found himself in an ideal situation: After an apparent mistake, serving openly, and without retribution, in the Navy he loved. Yet, Knight would soon surrender to his conscience once again.

In March 2007, General Peter Pace, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would tell the Chicago Tribune that his personal beliefs conflicted with the idea of gays serving openly in the military. “...saying gays should serve openly in the military, to me, says that, by policy, we'd be condoning what I believe to be immoral activity,” Pace said.

“I was never political. But at that moment – when I heard his remarks – I knew I needed to speak up,” Knight said. He wrote a letter to the editor of the Stars and Stripes.

“I spent four years in the Navy, buried fallen servicemembers as part of the Ceremonial Guard, served as a Hebrew Linguist in Navy Intelligence, and received awards for exemplary service,” he wrote. “However, because I was gay, the Navy discharged me and recouped my 13k sign-on bonus. Nine months later, the Navy recalled me to active duty. Did I accept despite everything that happened? Of course I did, and I would do it again. Because I love the Navy and I love my country. And despite Pace's opinion, my shipmates support me.”

Within weeks Knight was discharged under “Don't Ask” – again.

When asked what was the most painful aspect of the law, Jason Knight said, “Navy ships return home to huge fanfare. Shipmates rejoice when they are reunited with their spouses. But for gays and lesbians, their celebrations must wait until they are off-base.”

Sergeant Sonya Contreras' Army career was derailed when she volunteered to do recruiting in the United States after a tour of duty in Germany. She had served openly in Germany without incident. But her last six months in the Army would prove the old adage that leadership starts at the top.

“I loved the Army,” Contreras said. “I loved the family unit. I come from a big Hispanic family.” Ironically, it would be this family that would ultimately turn against her.

Contreras was living successfully in the Army in her new post in Oxnard, California. Her recruiting efforts reaching out to the Hispanic community had won her accolades from her superiors. Commanders sought to promote her to her own recruiting station command.

Her quick rise, however, would soon be challenged by veteran recruiters resentful of her success. They accused her of illegal recruiting tactics. Accusations she would easily defend herself against.

When her peers turned to sexually harassing Contreras – a move which appeared to be supported, even encouraged, by a new commander tolerant of gay slurs – she found herself trapped by a policy written against her. If she asked for help, she would be outing herself, and if she kept quiet eventually the Army would investigate the rumors. After being denied a transfer, she gave up and admitted her homosexuality. She was discharged honorably in June of 2003.

“If I could speak to Congress, I would say that I felt comfortable as a woman in the Army. I felt comfortable as a Hispanic in the Army. In all aspects, except when it came to be being a lesbian. The Army protected me in every regard, except as a lesbian – there they were free to discriminate,” Contreras said.

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