There were many poignant moments Monday evening as about 200 Atlantans gathered in Piedmont Park to mark the end of the U.S. military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. But none were more touching than when Danny Ingram, national president of American Veterans for Equal Rights, brought to the podium the very officer who had discharged him from the Army for being gay almost 20 years ago.
Atlanta ceremony marks end of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’
Ingram was discharged in 1994, one of the first victims of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He explained how now-retired Colonel Kelly R. Jimenez, who is Latino, called him into a meeting with him and the second in command, who was African-American.
“My granddaddy had to get his ass kicked so I could serve in the U.S. Army,” Ingram recalled Jimenez saying.
“His daddy had to get his ass kicked so he could serve in the U.S. Army,” Jimenez continued, referring to the black officer.
“Now, Sergeant, you are are going to get your ass kicked so your people can someday serve in the U.S. Army,” Ingram recalled Jimenez telling him.
A triumphant Ingram then told the crowd, “That day is tomorrow.”
The ban on openly gay service members is officially off the books on Tuesday, and tonight’s ceremony marked the end of the last duty day under the policy.
To commemorate the end of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which was enacted in 1993 and led to almost 14,000 discharges, American Veterans for Equal Rights hosted a formal retreat ceremony at the veteran’s marker in Piedmont Park, followed by a celebration at Outwrite Bookstore & Coffeehouse. AVER will also host a reveille ceremony Tuesday morning.
Taking the podium after Ingram on Monday evening, Jimenez – who had reconnected with his former comrade after both attended a recent funeral – described Ingram as “not just a soldier, he was my best soldier.”
Jimenez was unable to save Ingram’s military career, but recalled fighting against higher-ups who wanted him to receive not only a discharge, but a court martial.
“We did it with dignity like my best soldier deserved,” Jimenez said before praising Ingram and all who gathered at the ceremony. “You all made it, for which I congratulate you.”
Many people in the military don’t care about the sexual orientation of those with whom they serve, Jimenez stressed.
“There’s a lot of people who feel like me, too,” he said. “A soldier is a soldier is a soldier.”
The ceremony, which lasted almost two hours, was attended by about 200, including the Atlanta Freedom Marching Band and the Our Song gay and lesbian chorus, which performed. About two dozen veterans were among the attendees.
Speakers also included U.S. Army veteran Jack Strouss, who was openly gay when he served in World War II.
Strouss, now 88, noted that he had help next to him in case he became light-headed, but he still wanted to firmly say to the military’s gay ban: “Good riddance.”
Strouss, who drew the first standing ovation from the crowd, flashed the “victory” sign as he left the microphone.
The evening concluded with a somber Retreat Ceremony, as a color guard made up of sometimes-tearful veterans lowered and folded the American flag that flies at the veterans’ marker.
Tomorrow’s reveille service will include a moment of silence for transgender veterans, who are not aided by the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and remain unable to serve.
Ingram announced the moment of silence from the podium, addressing Monica Helms, who is president of the Transgender American Veterans Association and also served in the color guard for Monday’s ceremony.
“I pledge to you before this flag that AVER will not rest until transgender people are allowed to serve in the U.S. military … we all came to this dance together and we will all leave together,” Ingram said.
Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” fulfilled a 2008 campaign pledge from President Barack Obama.
“By ending ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ no longer will our nation be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans forced to leave the military, despite years of exemplary performance, because they happen to be gay,” Obama said after Congress passed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010 in late December.
The act required that the policy remain on the books until the president, secretary of defense and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff certified that ending it would not negatively impact military readiness. It then required a 60-day waiting period before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would officially end.
Certification was issued on July 22, making Sept. 20 the date of repeal.
Jeff Cleghorn, an Atlanta attorney and board member with Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, attended Monday’s ceremony and was among the activists who worked tirelessly to end the policy and help those who were hurt by it. Cleghorn will host a “repeal day” celebration and fundraiser for SLDN at his home on Tuesday, Sept. 20. A $25 donation is requested for the fundraiser but is not required.