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Staff Sgt. Discharged by Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: ‘I Should Be Flying Planes Now’

September 20, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Pentagon officially ended its "don't ask, don't tell" policy on Tuesday. Judy Woodruff discusses the change with two gay service members: former Air Force Staff Sgt. David Hall, who hopes to re-enlist after being kicked out because of the policy, and Lt. Cmdr. Zac Matthews, an active-duty U.S. Coast Guard helicopter pilot.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: The U.S. military closes the books on “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Navy Lieutenant Gary Ross and his partner celebrated the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” with a Vermont wedding just after midnight, when repeal officially took effect.

LT. GARY ROSS, U.S. Navy: It’s an undescribable feeling when you think, finally, we can be just like everybody else.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the U.S. Capitol, three other service members joined a group of senators in welcoming the end of the ban on homosexuals serving openly.

CAPT. SARAH PEZZAT, U.S. Marine Corps: I’m 31 years old. I’m a woman. I’m a United States Marine. And I’m a lesbian. And — pardon me. Prior to today, if I had said that, I could expect to be discharged from the military. I love the Marine Corps, which is why I haven’t been able to completely leave it, even though “don’t ask, don’t tell”  made my life pretty miserable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There was a less fanfare at today’s Pentagon news conference with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

LEON PANETTA, U.S. Secretary of Defense: I’m committed to removing all of the barriers that would prevent Americans from serving their country and from rising to the highest level of responsibility that their talents and capabilities warrant. These are men and women who put their lives on the line in the defense of this country. And that’s what should matter the most.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen had been one of the leading advocates of lifting the ban.

ADMIRAL MICHAEL MULLEN, Joints Chiefs Chairman: I testified in early 2010 that it was time to end this law and this policy. I believed then and I still believe that it was first and foremost a matter of integrity, that it was fundamentally against everything we stand for as an institution to force people to lie about who they are just to wear a uniform. We are better than that. We should be better than that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The 1993 law barred the military from asking those in uniform if they were gay. But any who openly declared their status were subject to being discharged. And over the last 18 years, some 14,000 service members did lose their jobs as a result.

Now investigations have ended and service members who were dismissed because of the ban will be allowed to reenlist. The repeal drive gathered momentum in 2008 when then candidate Barack Obama pledged to lift the ban. As president, he called for action in his 2010 State of the Union address.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last December, the lame-duck Congress passed repeal. Implementation was delayed, pending new training for the troops. Pentagon officials say 97 percent of those in uniform have now received that training.

And for more on the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the lives of two military men, we turn to David Hall, an Air Force staff sergeant training to become an officer when he was outed and then discharged. He now hopes to reenlist. And Lieutenant Commander Zac Mathews, an active-duty Coast Guard helicopter pilot.

And we want to thank both of you for being with us this evening. Thank you.

LT. CMDR. ZAC MATHEWS, U.S. Coast Guard: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

Commander Zac Mathews, let me start with you. You are in the military now. What does this day mean to you?

LT. CMDR. ZAC MATHEWS: Well, it’s definitely a big day, Judy, I think, first and foremost.

To me, it means two things. I’m part of a family now, more so than I was yesterday. I can be honest and open with my co-workers. But, more importantly, today means that I still show up at work and I still do my job, because first and foremost, I’m a member of the military serving in the Coast Guard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was it emotional for you?

LT. CMDR. ZAC MATHEWS: It’s getting there. This morning, it’s been very — it’s been a very busy day. And I think, as the day wears on, it is becoming more and more emotional for me, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Former Sergeant David Hall, what does the day mean to you? You left the military, what, nine years ago.

FORMER STAFF SGT. DAVID HALL, U.S. Air Force: It is. I mean, it is an exciting day.

I mean, now I have the opportunity to go back into the military, you know, if I want to and if they want me back. But, also, you know, I have a lot of friends that are in the military and I had a lot of friends that were discharged under don’t ask, don’t tell. So it’s an exciting day to know that all my friends, you know, aren’t going to lose their job like I did. And then the ones that did lose their job, we all have the chance to fix that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Commander Mathews, what has it been like for you? You have — how long have you been in the service with the Coast Guard?

LT. CMDR. ZAC MATHEWS: Oh, over 11 years now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s it been like for you?

LT. CMDR. ZAC MATHEWS: It’s been challenging. There have been good days and there have been bad days.

A lot of the times, my partner and I — my partner and I have had to make up excuses for what we did over the weekend, often showing up — myself showing up at events by myself. And it’s been challenging. But the important thing now is that we can finally both participate and be much more — build much stronger camaraderie with our troops.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And have the Guards men and women you have been serving with, the people you work with, have they known?

LT. CMDR. ZAC MATHEWS: I think so. There’s a few individuals, a few trusted individuals, with whom I have been able to be open with.

But I think it will probably be a surprise to some. But I’m looking forward to the future as it comes down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what do you expect that to feel like, to be like? How different do you think things will be?

LT. CMDR. ZAC MATHEWS: I don’t think it’s going to be very different at all. I still will show up at work and do my job.

The important thing is, I think, as leaders in the military, is we have an opportunity now to be good role models, gay and lesbian service members, to stand up, to provide a solid role to those coming up behind us and dispel any negative stereotypes that might be there as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Hall, again, a former staff sergeant until you had to leave the military, tell us a little bit about your story, what happened.

FORMER STAFF SGT. DAVID HALL: Well, I went into the military, following in the footsteps of my dad and stepdad, who both served 20 years in the Air Force. I was enlisted for five years. At the five-year mark, the Air Force let me go out to go an Air Force ROTC for two years.

There was a female cadet that knew I was gay. And my boyfriend at the time was also a cadet. And so she went to our commander and said, “They’re both gay, in a relationship.”

And so when the JAG came in, the officers, or the investigators for the Air Force, I told them I had no comment. And they, a few months later, called me in and said, “Well, we’re discharging you due to homosexual conduct,” based of — off just what this one person said. I was ranked number one in my class. I had a pilot slot. So…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were ranked number one in your class?

FORMER STAFF SGT. DAVID HALL: I was. So, I should be flying planes now. Instead, you know, I’m not.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And at the time, what did that mean in your life, when you had to leave the military?

FORMER STAFF SGT. DAVID HALL: Well, you know, I — growing up, you know, military, I planned on staying in 20 years. I was looking forward to a career as an officer, as a pilot.

It was devastating. I had to figure out, well, what am I going to do now? The military is no longer part of my life. And so I just had to do a lot of thinking of, what do I want to do? And, fortunately, I have been able to — I have been able to pick up my feet and move on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Commander Mathews, how do you expect others you work with to be — how do you expect the atmosphere may change? Do you expect to be welcomed? How different do you think it may or may not be?

LT. CMDR. ZAC MATHEWS: Well, that’s a good question.

I think, I hope that it will remain status quo, as it is. And that’s the way it should be, because when we join the Coast Guard or whatever service we choose, we join as a team. And we work as a team. And we all work together to get the mission done. So, first and foremost, the duty or the mission is what’s most important.

So just because I happen to be a gay man serving in the Coast Guard is secondary to me coming to work every day and flying a helicopter, saving lives, and doing the mission.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David Hall, you have said you do want to reenlist. What do you expect that process to be like? How far along are you right now?

FORMER STAFF SGT. DAVID HALL: Well, yes, I talked to my recruiter a couple weeks ago. And then he told me he would call me back on the 20th, when the military told him that he could talk to people that were — had been discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And he called me this afternoon and we chatted.

So I will be going to his office on Thursday, where we will look over my paperwork and see, you know, what my opportunities are. So, hopefully, you know, within the next few weeks or months, I will be back in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are you hearing from others who are trying or about to try to reenlist?

FORMER STAFF SGT. DAVID HALL: We’re hearing a lot of the same things, where a lot of them that are trying to get back in get to.

But, you know, we also realize that the military right now is not needing people. So, I think most of us are looking at reserves, rather than active duty, because it is much easier to go back into the reserves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you expect it to be a smooth process?

FORMER STAFF SGT. DAVID HALL: I do expect it to be a smooth process. I mean, I didn’t have any issue. The only issue I had was with my sexual orientation. And that is no longer an issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Commander Mathews, what about in the longer term going ahead? What do you think the issues may be for individuals who are gay or lesbian?

LT. CMDR. ZAC MATHEWS: Well, there’s — this is a brave new world for everyone, for both gays, lesbians and straights.

So there’s a lot of situations where partners showing up at social events, on one extreme, and then, on the other extreme, you have very important issues, like benefits for spouses and support for partners who are at home while the other person is deployed. So there’s a very large spectrum of issues that will need to be addressed. But today is a very important historic first step that many before us have braved the way for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think you carry any bitterness about what you have been through?

LT. CMDR. ZAC MATHEWS: I don’t. I don’t.

It’s been a long battle and there’s been a lot of challenges, but I think, for myself, it’s been worth it. Like I said, there have been many mentors and many role models that I have had who have gone before. And some are no longer in the military. And that is a tragedy. And I hope that at some point, they can be at peace with themselves with how they feel with that.

But I think the important focus now is, we need to move forward and work together as a team.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about you, David Hall? A feeling of bitterness? I mean, this has been nine years when you said you would have rather been in the military, rather than on the outside looking in.

FORMER STAFF SGT. DAVID HALL: Actually, zero bitterness. I love the military. I realize that this is a law that was passed by Congress in 1993. The military follows the laws. That’s what — what we do.

And, you know, it’s a new day. We move forward. And I’m just looking forward to the chance to go back in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And long-term expectations?

FORMER STAFF SGT. DAVID HALL: I plan on — I wanted to go in and stay for 20 years. That’s what I plan on doing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we so appreciate both of you coming to be with us this evening.

Former Staff Sergeant David Hall with the Air Force, and current Lieutenant Commander in the Coast Guard Zac Mathews, we thank you both.

LT. CMDR. ZAC MATHEWS: Thank you, Judy.

FORMER STAFF SGT. DAVID HALL: Thank you.