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Va. veterans detail scars during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: ‘I had to hide who I truly was’

Va. veterans detail scars during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: ‘I had to hide who I truly was’
Posted at 6:22 PM, Sep 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-23 18:22:30-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Lindsay Church joined the Navy knowing their life while serving their country would be tough.

“When I first joined, I had to sign a form that said I wasn’t gay and that I wouldn’t engage in homosexual conduct, so it was the first lie that I told the military. I had to hold that secret three years and nine months,” Church recalled.

Stephanie Merlo, while stationed at an Army base in Germany, was sexually assaulted by a superior.

“Because the assault was from a woman, I could not report it,” Merlo stated. “If I reported it, I would face charges of being gay.”

Monday marked 10 years since the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell military policy ended.

Thousands of service members just like Church and Merlo withheld their identities from their colleagues, their superiors and their families until September 20, 2011, when then-President Barack Obama repealed the policy.

“It was Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, but nobody stopped the pursuit and really seeking out the folks that were in these communities just trying to survive,” Church said.

During the 18 years that the policy was in place, approximately 14,000 service members were discharged from the military for being gay. Since War World I, it’s estimated an additional 100,000 service members were kicked out for who they loved or how they identified.

“If you get a dishonorable discharge, it’s very close to having a felony on your record,” Church explained.

A dishonorable discharge prevented a veteran from receiving benefits like education, medical, pensions and burial rights.

Merlo recounted the time when a colleague told a superior that she might be homosexual. Her staff sergeant shut down any investigation surrounding her sexual identity.

“It’s wild to think that just one whisper would have destroyed my career,” Merlo stated. “I wouldn’t have this house because I used a VA (Veterans Affairs) loan for this.”

Church spent the last three months of their military service living their authentic self, which still presented challenges. The attitudes and culture didn’t change overnight because of a policy change.

Now out of the military, both Church and Merlo work to enact change under the non-profit Minority Veterans of America.

Their work has been recognized by the Department of Veterans Services where Church, the president of the non-profit, has spoken on Capitol Hill fighting for benefits for all veterans.

On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that those service members who received other than honorable discharges for their sexual orientation, gender identity or HIV status are eligible for full benefits.

Church described the scars from hiding their true selves for so long, while under the constant fear of being kicked out of the military.

“When you get out of the military, most of those ideas and pervasive thoughts still exist,” they recalled. “When you get out the community doesn’t welcome you in open arms and you don’t want to be part of the community that has caused so much trauma in your life.”

A third-generation Navy sailor, Church described why they fight so hard for others.

“My fight is always about writing the wrongs of history and fighting for a better future for our community,” they said. “We earned that. We fought for that.”