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May 9, 2008

Air Force colonel says 'don't ask' won't last

Beavercreek, Ohio--“People in the trenches [in the military] now were in high school when Ellen came out, watched Will and Grace, and had gay straight alliances in their schools,” says retired Air Force Col. Daniel Tepfer.

“My grandson, who is 11 and in junior high, the boot camp for life, sees different perspectives, more diverse than when we went to school,” Tepfer continues, “We now recognize and accept other people, including LGBT ones.”

Tepfer, 65, of Beavercreek near Dayton, is a national director of Parents Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. More recently, he has been an outspoken critic of the ban on openly lesbian and gay military service members known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

In an op-ed piece in the Dayton Daily News on May 1, Tepfer pointed out that the military has increased the number of “moral waivers”--special exemptions allowing some people with criminal records to be recruited--while continuing to fire gays and lesbians.

“Since the policy was enacted in 1993, more than 12,000 service members have been dismissed for being gay. We can’t know how many gay men and women served in secret or how many desired to volunteer but didn’t because of the military’s rule,” Tepfer wrote.

“My 23 years of active-duty service were before ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and before I knew I had a gay child. I confess I gave little thought to whether gay people were serving in the military with me or whether they should be allowed to serve.

“Having a gay child opened my mind and heart to issues I hadn’t considered, and military service was one,” wrote Tepfer.

He and his wife Nancy have three children. Their daughter Amanda, now 33, was adopted from Korea at 11 months. She came out as lesbian in 1996 while a student at Wright State University.

Tepfer, who retired from the Air Force in 1989 after working at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, was then a compliance officer on government subcontracts for GE Aircraft in Cincinnati. He continues that job today as a part-time retiree.

“Amanda pointed Nancy and me to PFLAG,” said Tepfer, “but I was in the closet at work about having a lesbian child.”

Carrying the P-FLAG banner

“In September of 1998, the United Church of Christ we attend elected to join the AIDS walk, which I supported,” Tepfer said.

There, the Tepfers met Jim and Ann Wilger. Jim Wilger, a retired B52 pilot, was then president of the Dayton chapter of PFLAG, Parents, Family and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.

“Suddenly, everything crystallized,” said Tepfer.

The two retired Air Force officers, one a pilot, the other a Minuteman missile launch instructor, carried the PFLAG banner in the AIDS walk. They subsequently took turns presiding over PFLAG Dayton, which is currently led by Nancy Tepfer. Jim Wilger died of cancer on April 21.

Tepfer said the 1993 debate around gays and lesbians serving in the military raised national discussion on the issue.

“To be clear, we’re talking about gays and lesbians only,” said Tepfer. “Bisexuals have always been there and transsexuals would not pass the physical.”

Tepfer said he can’t say what Air Force officers were thinking about the issue at the time because he was already at GE.

“The only officers I talked to then were about contract compliance,” Tepfer said.

Tepfer listened to the book Serving in Silence by Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer while commuting to work, and was moved by the story.

Cammermeyer, a Washington National Guard nurse, came out as lesbian during a routine security clearance interview in 1989, before “don’t ask don’t tell.” She was discharged, then successfully sued the government. The judge in the suit ruled that banning gays and lesbians from military service was unconstitutional, and Cammermeyer was one of a few servicemembers allowed to finish her career.

“I have seen people forced out, close to retirement,” said Tepfer, “and they lost their pensions.”

“I remember when I was on active duty in 1967, we were warned not to be gay or we would lose our security clearances,” he noted.

Tepfer added that he did not go through basic training, so he was not subjected to the anti-gay hazing that most recruits endure for indoctrination on what is unacceptable behavior.

But Tepfer recalls that in the 1980s, he took a stand against “brown shoe regulations”--a reference to World War II footwear--which included the ban on gays and rules against fraternization between officers and enlisted troops.

“This was 1985, not 1945, and these rules were ludicrous in a modern Air Force,” Tepfer said.

Tepfer’s Dayton Daily News piece listed his email contact. Most of the feedback has been positive, he said. During this interview, a message came in. “Your recent piece in the Dayton Daily News was right on. Thanks,” it read.

Tepfer said career servicemembers will not stand in the way of a repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell.”

“Career folks at the Pentagon do what their political bosses tell them to do,” he said, adding that officers will have a different opinion today than they did 15 years ago.

Translators put a face on it

The American public seemed to question “don’t ask don’t tell” after the September 11 attacks, he noted, when gay Arabic translators were discharged.

“That put a face on it. It put it in the public eye, and the public began to ask why are we doing this, especially when Condoleeza Rice said how many days behind we were in translating.”

The policy has been called into question at high levels twice this week.

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the West Point graduating class on May 4 that Congress, not the military, is responsible for the policy and if the law changes, the military will follow the law.

The day before, Rep. Joe Sestak, a Pennsylvania Democrat who is the highest ranking military veteran in Congress and a 31year Navy three star admiral, called for his fellow members of Congress to repeal “don’t ask don’t tell.”

As a result of his Daily News article, Tepfer was contacted by retired Army Reserve Major General Dennis Laich of Columbus.

Laich has long called for the repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell” and wants Tepfer to join him in lobbying Ohio Sen. George Voinovich.

“The meeting is not set yet,” Laich said, “So far, he has no position on the policy. We want him to take one against it.”

“How can the U.S. armed services justify making exceptions to enlist individuals with criminal records but continue to deny military careers to honest, qualified gay men and women?” Tepfer wrote in the Daily News.

“They can’t. It is time to repeal ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”


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