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Don't Ask, Don't Tell: A soldier's story
by John Lendman
2008-08-13

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The Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va., is known as the 'Crossroads of the Marine Corps.' While touting its place on the frontline of innovation, Quantico is where Marines train to excel in their ranks.

For Chicago native Marquell Smith, Quantico was more than a crossroads to his exemplary military career; it was a calling—a calling to serve his country, something he could earn that no one could take away from him.

By the winter of 2005, as sergeant in administrative personnel, Smith handled quality-of-life services for incoming active-duty Marines—from healthcare benefits to travel arrangements. Smith's outstanding record, he said, lead him on the path to becoming an officer.

After seeking medical advice in confidence from his drill sergeant during an HIV-exposure scare, Smith said his career became scrutinized by rumors and hearsay. Subsequently, in November 2005, Smith found himself implicated under the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' ( DADT ) policy. His promotion never came.

'Giving up my leadership in the Marine Corps was one of the most disappointing things to ever happen to me,' Smith said. 'I made so many sacrifices for the Marines; I went above and beyond the call of duty on many occasions. … I felt that the Marine Corps failed me and I also felt my leadership failed me.' The weeks and months that followed were especially difficult, Smith recalled.

Since the subject matter was so sensitive, Smith was told he couldn't discuss the situation with any of his colleagues and, in turn, his commanding of- ficer told his colleagues not to talk to Smith, either. He was not at liberty to seek support from people he had been working side-by-side for years. 'It was emotionally draining. … You're walking around wondering why they won't talk to you,' Smith said. 'I was a sergeant that was told to come into work and basically do nothing but sit at a desk; I was treated like a prisoner.' Smith's defining moment came when the Marine Corps offered him an honorable discharge if he chose not to fight his case, he said. 'I take great pride in when I made the decision to fight,' Smith said. 'I made this decision not on the basis of myself, but for every gay and lesbian service member that I knew that was still in the uniform. So I lost my career to a discharge.'

Testimonies like Smith's were shared when the validity of the DADT military policy was challenged during July 23 congressional hearings by the House Military Personnel Subcommittee. Discharged service members; decorated veterans; and Democratic and Republican congressional leaders spoke out in support of repealing DADT. In addition, numerous gay and lesbian civil-rights groups such as the Human Rights Campaign ( HRC ) , Servicemembers Legal Defense Network ( SLDN ) the Log Cabin Republicans and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, raised awareness of the issue leading up to the hearings. HRC Director of Public Affairs Christopher Johnson attended the highly publicized hearings and said he remembers large diverse crowds of people lining up around the hall to witness the testimonies. He said it was interesting to hear the stories told by service members who dedicated their lives to serving their country only to be kicked out over a policy that doesn't help the country's military readiness at all. 'If there was headway made, it was all about raising awareness and putting actual face to the issue,' Johnson said. 'You really can't underestimate the value of people going before congress to tell their personal stories.' Johnson said he agreed with California Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher's statement saying that DADT is one of the last civil-rights issues facing gays and lesbians today.

'If they are putting their lives on the line for our country, they should not live in fear of losing their jobs because of their sexual orientation,' Johnson said. An outspoken presence at the hearings could be found across party lines as well, said Log Cabin Republicans Communications Director Scott Tucker. Citing the recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showing support for the repeal of DADT among Republicans, doubling from 32 percent to 64 percent in the last 15 years, Tucker said it is no longer a partisan issue.

'It is important for Americans to know how this policy is harming our nation during a time of war when our military is already stretched too thin,' Tucker said. 'It's certainly going to take a continuing of pressuring on Congress to talk with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.' After more than six years of service, Smith still says, 'once a Marine, always a Marine.' While currently working with SLDN and his attorney to upgrade his discharge to an honorable status, the now 27-year-old Andersonville resident says he has a great civilian career. Today, Smith looks at his discharge as a blessing in disguise, having fought for what he believes in. 'They can strip me of my entire career, they could have everything, but they will never have my dignity,' Smith said. 'I left [ the Marines ] thinking I made a mark, not just for myself but for others. I truly am a martyr for the cause.' More than 12,000 service members have been discharged since the DADT policy has been in place. SLDN reports that two service members a day are discharged under DADT and offers support and services such as legal advice to active duty gay and lesbian service members. Find out more about SLdn at www.sldn.org


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