Growing up Walker Burttschel, 29, of Miami Beach always dreamed of serving in the military.
“The day after 9/11 I dropped out of school and enlisted,” he recalled. “It was always a goal, but the attacks made me jump on it a lot sooner.”
Burttschel said he knew he was gay before he joined the Marines, but was only out to a few close friends.
“I never really thought it was an issue,” he said. “All of my friends were in the military.”
Two years later his dream turned in to a nightmare when someone found out he was gay and threatened to expose him.
“I went a little ballistic and became very depressed,” he said. “I tried to commit suicide and was hospitalized for a few weeks.”
In the end those threats of being outted never came to fruition. Instead, while in the hospital, he came out to his physician who then exposed him.
“I thought I could tell my doctor anything but that wasn’t true, not in the military,” he said. “I didn’t realize that, I was a little naïve.”
Today Burttschel works for a real estate developer and for the past couple of years has taken an active role in attempting to overturn DADT. He hasn’t decided if he’ll try to re-enlist yet.
“I’m just extremely happy,” he said. “I never really thought it was a personal fight for me, but more for all of my friends that are serving that are gay. They’ve had to live this double life. Thankfully they don’t have to worry about their career being jeopardized anymore.”
For some though the fight isn’t over yet. The Log Cabin Republicans are still challenging the law in court even though it’s been repealed. They’ve already had some success with one judge ruling it unconstitutional.
“A judicial ruling will make it more formal,” said Executive Director Clark Cooper. “Legislative repeal struck the law off of the books but didn’t address whether it was a bad law. It doesn’t memorialize how unjust it was. A ruling would set a precedent against future statutes that might pop up.”
For Cooper the end is not just his organization’s mission, but it’s also personal. He’s been in the army since 2001 and is currently a captain in the army reserves. And he’s always been fairly open about his sexuality. He said one of the biggest problems with DADT was the arbitrary enforcement.
“That’s the arbitrary nature of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” he said. “It’s just a bad law. There’s a whole list of reasons why it was bad.”
Before 1993 when someone joined the military he or she had to answer whether or not they were homosexual. After President Clinton signed DADT in to law that question was removed and personal life was supposed to stay private. Instead over the next 18 years more gay men and women in uniform were discharged for being gay than before the policy went in to effect.
“It was never applied the way it was intended,” Cooper said. “Service members were supposed to be able to live a private life. They just couldn’t bring it in the work place. The military wasn’t supposed to seek it out.”
However, that’s not what happened. Mark Cady saw the arbitrary enforcement first hand and said some in the military have used DADT to retaliate against other members.
“It all depended on who was in higher rank,” he said. “One person I know of was in one command and no one cared. Then he got transferred and ended up getting booted out.”
Cady, who served in the navy for 12 years, said some areas were more tolerant than others like the U.S. Naval Medical Command.
“They would not be able to function without gay and lesbian doctors,” he said. “It was always something overlooked in the medical command.”
Cady recently founded Out and Proud Veterans of America in Orlando and serves as the executive director. He celebrated the end of DADT at the Orlando VA medical center.
Cady came out to his military officers in 1994 and asked to be discharged because he didn’t believe in the DADT compromise.
“I got out in protest,” he said.
No one knows for sure how many LGBT service members there are but Gary Gates, a demographer at UCLA’s Williams Institute has been studying the issue for years. The Williams Institute is a leading research institute on sexual orientation and gender identity law and policy.
He estimates there to be about 71,000 LGBT active duty members and reservists. He also estimates the military lost about 4,000 people a year because of DADT and the policy cost the military about $364 million because of having to train new people to do the job of the discharged members.
“The issue now is will more gay people sign up, or are they more likely now to provide more information,” he said.
While Gates doesn’t know what his institute will be studying next he believes some of the issues in the future will be how the military deals with HIV, partners of LGB service members, and transgender issues.
This week’s formal end of the policy is the final nail in the coffin for this discriminatory law. It’s over. There are no more studies that need to be completed, no more votes, no more certifications. Now gays and lesbians can serve openly alongside their heterosexual counterparts for the first time in U.S. history.