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Ten years after 'don't ask, don't tell', a Vt. National Guard vet reflects on serving while in the closet

A photo of a person in a military outfit with an American flag in the background
Romni Palmer, Courtesy
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Romni Palmer, pictured after her Army basic training, served six years in the National Guard, first in North Carolina, and then in her home state of Vermont, while the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was in effect. She was not among the estimated 14,000 veterans discharged under the policy, but she says the rules required she keep her relationships and private life secret from her colleagues and work in the Guard.

September marked 10 years since the U.S. military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy was repealed. The policy, which was in place for nearly 18 years, barred openly-identifying LGBTQ Americans from serving in the armed forces. It impacted thousands of service members, including Vermonter Romni Palmer. She served in the National Guard for six years under DADT.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Romni Palmer, who joined the Army National Guard in North Carolina before transferring to the Vermont Army National Guard and eventually the Vermont Air National Guard before ending her military career in January 2001. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Romni Palmer: I’m terrible at lying about things. I mean, I suppose I could if really tried. But when “don't ask, don't tell” happened, that allowed me to join the Guard. Whereas before, they'd ask you if you were a homosexual, but when “don't ask, don't tell” happened, that question was literally crossed off the paperwork. They had to use all of their forms up before printing new ones. So, the old forms, they just crossed off that question.

Mitch Wertlieb: You could actually see it crossed out on the form?

Yeah. Yeah, that was kind of cool, actually.

An image of a form with a question crossed out.
Romni Palmer, Courtesy
Romni Palmer joined the Army National Guard shortly after "don't ask, don't tell" was instituted, when old forms still asked enlistees if they were "homosexual or bisexual."

As I understand it, you did have a girlfriend at the time, and you had to keep that secret. Was that difficult for you to do?

It was kind of tricky. I mean, I was young enough to think that this was an interesting game, it was the game of: “I can be in the military, and this is what you had to do.”

And so, when we’d write letters, I’d change her name on the letter, so that the envelopes didn't show anything. You know, it's just what you did to stay in the military.

And nobody was allowed to ask. It wasn't just that they shouldn't, it was that they weren't allowed to ask, and I wasn't allowed to tell. And those rules worked for me.

You are from Vermont, originally, but you joined the Army National Guard in North Carolina, spending two years there before transferring to the Vermont Army National Guard, and then the Vermont Air National Guard. How was it different living under “don't ask, don't tell” in North Carolina, versus Vermont?

In the National Guard, people generally live in the community that they're serving in. So, it wasn't like when you're in a federal military base or post, where you'd have people from all over the country.

In North Carolina, people were very interested in your personal life. And in Vermont, people, you know, didn't ask a lot of questions, probably, in general.

I had some interesting experiences in the North Carolina National Guard. We were doing our annual training, and it happened to coincide with that [1996 episode of the sitcom] Ellen.

Oh, when she came out to her to her national audience that she was a lesbian?

Yeah. And that conversation came up while we were on our annual training. And people were just so upset by that, they couldn't believe it. And they had a lot of disparaging things to say about that. And I was so excited about it, I was like, “This is great!” but I couldn't say anything to anybody.

The contrast of what was in my head, versus what I was hearing around me, was intense. And it was what I was hearing around me from people that I worked with, and who liked me, and I liked them, and they just didn't know anything about me. And it was it was a little hard, but also just strange, and ironic, and just the deal I made to be there.

So, you finished your six years in the National Guard in January 2001. “Don't ask, don't tell” was still in effect at that time. How did that policy affect your decision to re-enlist or not?

By then I had matured enough to know that the choices I make impact the lives of the people that are involved in my life.

A photo of a person kneeling on the ground in military uniform.
Romni Palmer, Courtesy
Romni Palmer, pictured here in battle dress uniform during her time in Air Force tech school.

I couldn't fully participate in a relationship in my life, and continue to be in the Guard, and also be fully present to who I was with, at the time, or in the future, or whenever.

And so, if I had re-upped, I would still have had to maintain my being in the closet, in a sense. And because it's the National Guard, and everybody who's in the guard is in that community, it's really hard to compartmentalize. And that would mean that, if there were a gay pride march in Burlington, I couldn't go, you know? And anybody who was with me would also have to, essentially, be in the closet. And that's not fair. But it was a tough decision, because I really enjoyed my time in the National Guard.

After 9/11, when I had been discharged, a part of me was like, “Gosh, I wish I could, you know, go back in,” but I couldn't. That was really tough. After you're done your six years — or whatever term that you're in for, active duty for four years or whatever — you still have a total of an eight-year obligation.

So, within the eight years from when you started, you could still be reactivated, you could still be called up. So, I was in for six years, and then I was, you know, kind of put into inactive reserve. And then 9/11 happened, and I got the stop-loss letter, which meant that they could call me up.

So that was really tough. Like, there was a lot of things going on. And it was really, really, really tough to walk away from that.

What do you want people to know about “don't ask, don't tell” that they may have forgotten? And for good or for ill, why is it important to remember “don't ask, don't tell?”

I don't know if it's good to remember “don't ask, don't tell.” That's not the answer most people want to hear.

I say that for me personally, because I don't want to dwell on that. And also, the challenges that it caused were actually kind of growing points for me in my life. All the good things or bad things that happened to me, for who I am, and I'm OK with myself, and that was a crucible that I survived.

But it was terrible for many people. Terrible, terrible. And so, it is important to remember these things. Just anytime, when there's this kind of discrimination that we look back on now and say, “I can't believe people did that.” I mean, gay marriage is now a norm. And you know, what's amazing is to look back and hear people talk about how incredulous it seems that you could be kicked out of the military for being gay.

I think, for me, it's important to look back on it, to realize that, because of the fact that it seems so ridiculous now, that people were kicked out for being gay in the military. Gay people had a lot to contribute, and the military lost really qualified people that gave up a lot to be there.

And, you know, for any of these instances where we get so set in our ways of things like this, it’s good to step back and look at the big picture and be asking “why.” Why, why are we doing this?

"Don't ask, don't tell" impacted LGBTQ Americans and those who were HIV-positive.

Last month, the Department of Veterans Affairs marked the 10 years since the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" by reiterating those discharged under the policy are considered veterans and are eligible for VA benefits, like home loan guarantees, pensions and health care.

The VA has also pledged additional review of discharges under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and is encouraging veterans affected by the policy to contact the VA to determine their eligibility for benefits.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb.

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