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Sequim residents working toward repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

After retiring from the Coast Guard, Judy “JP” Persall, left,  and Diana Wickman both followed the old naval tradition of creating a shadow box of memorabilia from their years in service. Persall and Wickman were both lieutenant commanders in the U.S. Coast Guard. Sequim Gazette photo by Mark Couhig

by MARK ST.J. COUHIG
Sequim Gazette


A vote by the U.S. Senate on the military policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) was scheduled this week as part of a defense authorization bill, but at the last minute Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced the vote would be postponed while he continued to negotiate with Republicans.

The vote could have resulted in the appeal of DADT, an end wished for and worked toward by two Sequim residents, both retired members of the U.S. Coast Guard. Judy (“JP”) Persall and Diana J. Wickman both held the rank of lieutenant commander.

“The failure to repeal DADT is greatly disappointing,” Persall said. “As I watched the day before on C-SPAN, they spent many hours on the DREAM Act, an undocumented immigrant bill. I am not discounting the importance of an immigration solution, however, it made me feel that as an American, why can’t the Senate take care of me first? This is probably selfish thinking, but as the few remaining hours go by until the lame duck session is over, I wanted them to address the DADT issue.”

We are family

In recent months, Persall and Wickman joined the “We Are Family Too” letter-writing campaign, penning their own comments to the members of the Comprehensive Review Working Group. The CRWG was appointed earlier this year by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to undertake a “review of the issues associated with properly implementing a repeal of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy,” according to the Working Group’s website.

The letter-writing campaign is the brainchild of Commander Beth Coye, U.S. Navy (Ret.). After meeting with Coye, Persall and Wickman agreed to write about their experiences as gays in the Coast Guard.
Persall served for 21 years, Wickman “22 and change.”

The idea, said Persall, sprang from one central fact: the members of the CRWG, who were drawn solely from within the Department of Defense, are unfamiliar with gays and lesbians, and particularly with their experiences in the service. So too were the senators who would be voting on the repeal.

“We said, ‘Let’s give them some personal experience of what it was like to serve under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” Persall said. “We wanted to get the Pentagon to know the people — to put a human aspect to it.”

The group had six weeks in which to gather the letters, eventually ending up with 37. Those who were retired were free to sign their names, but those still serving used noms de plume to avoid repercussions.

The perils of DADT

Persall and Wickman purchased their Sequim home eight years ago and moved in about two years ago. Wickman was at one time stationed at the Coast Guard base on Ediz Hook and fell in love with the peninsula. Persall is “a military brat” who lived in more than 50 homes.

While keeping a close eye on the Senate deliberations on C-SPAN, the two talked this week about their experiences as gays serving in the Coast Guard under DADT.

“We both retired early because of this,” Wickman said. “It’s exhausting ... having to always think about what you might say. It wears on you.”

Persall noted that DADT doesn’t remove the onus on gays in the military but simply ensures no one asks about orientation. Homosexuality remains an actionable offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justicet.

Persall said, “They can still investigate you for being gay. DADT doesn’t say you can be gay. Once it’s repealed you’ll still have to change the laws, including the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

“No U.S. states say homosexuality is against the law. Let’s let the military law reflect the states,” Persall said.

She noted that co-workers with a beef can initiate investigations, with consequences ranging from a slap on the wrist to a dishonorable discharge. Criminal charges are possible.

Persall said 14,000 service members were discharged in the past 17 years under DADT “because of their sexuality.”

“I don’t believe anyone should be afraid of their government,” Persall said, “and to be dishonorably discharged from an organization that we loved ....”

Both said during their years in the Coast Guard their colleagues never asked and “we never told.”

Wickman said, “No one talked about it. It was taboo because no one wanted to get anyone in trouble.”

Persall described her colleagues as “incredible people. They were totally mission-oriented. They didn’t care about your age, color, religion ....

“United we stand, divided we fall. When you’re united in a mission, nothing is stronger. But secrets aren’t healthy.”

Persall said there’s more to it. “I want my country to stand up for me.”

Persall and Wickman are now supporting a plan to bring a free-standing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” legislative repeal to the Senate floor sometime during the current lame duck session. Sens. Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins are co-sponsoring the bill, which will contain the repeal language found in the defense authorization bill. They say they will use Rule 14 to bypass the Senate Armed Services Committee and bring it directly to the floor.

Reach Mark Couhig at mcouhig@sequimgazette.com.

 

 

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