Lee Reinhart, a veteran of both the Navy and Coast Guard, is well aware of the insidious and arbitrary nature of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The Navy handed him an honorable discharge, while the Coast Guard fired him for being gay under the soon-to-be-repealed federal law and military policy.
During the mid-1990s, Reinhart served in the Navy aboard the U.S.S. Cowpens ( CG-63 ) , a guided missile cruiser. There, he was an openly gay operations specialist. His two years on the Cowpens were "the greatest time of my life," said Reinhart recently during a telephone interview. "Everyone knew I was gay. The commanding officer and I never had a discussion about it, but he obviously knew."
"Our ship was the lead ship in the 1998 missile strike against Afghanistan," Reinhart said. Consequently, "Our captain made admiral coming out of that mission. And I was asked to be on the admiral's staff, as well as cook, who was also gay."
However, after four years of service, Reinhart returned to Chicago and civilian life. The events of 911, however, prompted the sailor to re-enlist in 2002. "I looked at my options," he said. "I was almost 30, and the only branches that would take me back [ at my former rate, second class petty officer, E-5 ] were the Navy and Coast Guard."
Reinhart opted for the latter, hoping to get orders to Key West, Fla. Instead he was sent back again to San Diego, this time for service on a Coast Guard ship but was discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" for being gay.
How did Reinhart's firing come about? "We took some female crew members out to a gay bar in Portland, Ore.," he explained, referring to a shipmate who was gay. "And they went back and talked about the great night they had with Josh and Lee at the gay bar. That started an investigation."
Reinhart's executive officer "couldn't believe that I had such a positive experience in the Navy," he said.
The Coast Guard pulled his top-secret clearance.
During a seven-day transit to Hawaii "was the first time I ever feared for my life," Reinhart said. "I didn't know what was happening. They locked me up in medical because they thought I would commit suicide, which I never was going to do."
In Hawaii, however, military lawyers "were furious over how the case was handled," Reinhart said, telling him: "It was botched from day one."
"They have no proof on you," he recalled lawyers saying: "You have prior service. There's never been an incident about you or this issue. You can stay on. We will take you off this command immediately. All we need you to do is tell us you are not gay. No more questions."
"But I couldn't do it," said Reinhart.
Shipboard on the Cowpens, however, tells an entirely different story of gay life in the Navy. Initially, Reinhart told only a few close friends that he was gay. For his first six-month deployment, they kept his secret.
"But before we left on a second six-month tour, I knew that I didn't want to deploy and not be comfortable," Reinhart said. "The friends who knewit was wearing on them, keeping the secret for me."
He continued, "So I packed my sea bag, put it on my rack, went up the see the operations officer, and turned myself in for being gay, knowing once I did that, he would put me off the ship."
"To my wonderful surprise," said Reinhart, "the operations officer said, 'Nice try. You are not going anywhere. If anyone bothers you, let me know.'"
Looking back on Navy days, "I was blessed," Reinhart said. "At quarters, I freely talked about what I did the night before. There were three or four openly gay people on my ship."
Recently, Reinhart met up with a former shipmate who is straight. One thing his friend says that he misses is the weekly brunches when the straight men went to gay bars in San Diego for brunch," Reinhart said. "That was their way of showing support. They always went to gay bars for Sunday brunch."
When asked how he felt about the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Reinhart said, "It feels pretty damn good."
Also, the Navy man turned gay-rights/repeal activist has a sense of accomplishment in lobbying U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, to change his vote in favor of lifting the ban. "I feel I was part of making that happen," said Reinhart.
With the day of celebration fast approaching, Reinhart offered an observation. "It is important for history to remember our straight brothers and sisters who stood beside us when it wasn't safe," he said. "They knew it was important for us to serve."
Meanwhile, Reinhart continues to work with a local recruiter. "I want to re-enlist. I want to have the opportunity to put the uniform back on in the reserves," he said. "I fought a long time for this and did not get paid for those trips to D.C. meeting with congressional leaders, telling my story."
�2011 Chuck Colbert. All rights reserved.