Saturday, May 13, 2006
I'm coming to you live from the Renaissance Washington Hotel, tapping out coverage of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network's 14th Annual National Dinner.
SLDN's mission, as a national, non-profit legal services, watchdog and policy organization, is dedicated to ending discrimination against and harassment of military personnel affected by "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and related forms of intolerance. Tonight the organization celebrates its successes, challenges and honors those who have made a significant impact over the last year in the fight to raise awareness of the contributions and importance of this country's gay and lesbian service members, and who have played a role in the mission to repeal DADT.
I'll be updating you on the goings-on, as well as posting short interviews and commentary about SLDN and the speakers and honorees tonight.
Speaking tonight: Claudia J. Kennedy, USA (Ret.), the highest ranking female officer in Army history, former Marine Corps Sergeant and Iraq veteran Brian Robert Fricke.
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), receives SLDN's Randy Shilts Visibility Award for her work to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell (via video).
And we'll be entertained this evening by the group BETTY (of The L Word theme fame).
This will be the largest gathering so far for this annual event - Rebecca Sawyer, communications officer for SLDN says about 700 will be in attendance, including current and former servicemembers, some out of the closet and others, out of necessity who are still serving "in silence."
One truth of about the reality of life under DADT that is little discussed, is that many are serving openly, with their commanding officers fully supportive of them. After interviewing Lieutenant General Claudia J. Kennedy, former Marine Corps Sergeant Brian Fricke, and Dixon Osburn, SLDN's executive director earlier today (I'll be doing a lot of transcribing and will post those interviews later), it's clear that it's the civilian leadership by far that is the obstacle to change. The administration is not listening to the change that is going on from within.
Time markers below are approximate.
7:15 The room is buzzing now, as it is filling with people ready to take it all in.
Things are about to kick off with the color guard and the singing of the national anthem by Bleu Copas, a trained Army linguist who was discharged under DADT.
And I get to munch on a bit of salad before settling in to record the action...
7:30 BETTY has now taken the stage with a rowdy version of the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B. You can hear more at the BETTY myspace site, and the band's main web site, Hello BETTY.
From earlier in the evening -- I promised wifey Kate that I'd come home with a pic taken with BETTY.
7:35 The program opens with a welcome from National Dinner Steering Committee Co-Chairs David Crane and Capt. Joan Darrah, USN (Ret.)
7:45 Dixon Osburn, the executive director of SLDN, gives a few good jabs at the Pentagon in his speech for its surveillance of a kiss-in against DADT as an act of terrorism. There are one million gay veterans. Think about that...and two service members are discharged every day. Oh, he just told a great job about all the queers working at the Pentagon "have you looked at who in the gym?!"
He reads from Maya Angelou's Still I Rise..."still, like air I rise," referring to all the servicemembers who refuse to back down, and are fighting for their right to serve openly. The 65,000 LGBT members serving are indeed equals to their straight colleagues. He outlines the risks to those who serve and that for many, SLDN is their only lifeline to surviving under this policy. Over 950 calls have been taken, individuals helped.
The Military Readiness Enhancement Act, with 115 sponsors, is a strong piece of legislation that Osburn feels has an fighting chance.
He announced, for the first time publicly, that the recent SLDN DADT constitutionality case that was dismissed will be appealed. That brought a standing ovation.
7:55 Board co-chairs Joe Tom Easley and Amy Courter thank the hardworking staff of SLDN is recognized for all their hard work putting on this dinner as well as for all of their efforts during the year.
8:00 They introduce the video of Randy Shilts Award recipient Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), who is a co-sponsor of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act. Ros-Lehtinen recounts the story of her husband, who was injured in Vietnam and was cared for by nurses -- some of whom might have been gay -- would their orientation have made a difference in the care he received? No. That's why Ros-Lehtinen is working to bring an end to DADT.
Note that she is one of the few Republicans signed on to this bill.
8:10 Dinner break...I pick the chicken. As I wait, guess who shows up:
Mike Rogers (R) of BlogActive and PageOneQ stopped in to say hi. He's with Rebecca Sawyer and Steve Ralls, communications director for SLDN.
8:40 BETTY returned to the stage and performed a couple of songs, including the theme to The L Word. Click the image for a video clip. (Thanks, Mike!)
From earlier in the evening during our interview.
8:50 Former Marine Corps Sergeant Brian Fricke is speaking. Brian Fricke served for five years under DADT, entering at 19 years old. Like many gays and lesbians who enter the service, he suppressed his own coming out process to himself in order to serve his country. Fricke spent eight months on duty in Iraq, but over time came to the realization that maintaining a secret life to remain in the Marines was too big a price to pay. While Fricke was not ensnared in a DADT dragnet, he speaks with many servicemembers who are concerned about being discharge, in his role as a volunteer for SLDN. You can read more about Brian Fricke's journey here.
I'll have an in-depth interview with Brian later.
Here is a short clip from his speech tonight (WAV file).
9:00 Brigadier General Pat Foote (Ret.) is introducing General Kennedy. Lieutenant General Claudia J. Kennedy, USA (Ret.) is the highest ranking female officer in Army history as well as the highest-ranking military official to speak at SLDN's annual gathering.
She is a recognized authority on women in the armed forces and military intelligence; the three-star general has also served as an on-air consultant for NBC News, and appeared on 20/20, CNN Larry King Live and MSNBC. She is the author of Generally Speaking, which covers her career, which spanned from 1969-2000. You can read an excellent profile of General Kennedy by Deb Price in the Detroit News.
9:02 Kennedy takes the stage. Army values expected of service members are loyalty, duty, selfless service, mutual respect, integrity and personal courage, and she wants the Army itself to live up to those values. She asks which of those values that are directly correlated to sexual orientation? None, which is precisely the issue.
It's a moving and at times really amusing speech; she's inspiring.
9:10 A Moment to Honor Fallen Comrades is delivered by honorary SLDN board member Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, Vincent W. Patton III, USCG (Ret.). He makes a direct comparison to the importance of the integration of the armed forces to the prospective lifting of DADT.
9:25 The closing song of the evening, You Raise Me Up, is performed by Bleu Copas, and the LGBT Color Guard presents again.
This evening I also had the pleasure of meeting several other veterans who served under DADT, the brave plaintiffs involved in the constitutional DADT challenge case, and those whose service in the closet predated the Clinton-era policy travesty.
Many thanks to all of the good folks at SLDN who were very accommodating for this experimental live blogging event -- no technical glitches! And a big thanks to Mike for his drop-in, because he was able to snare some of these shots while I tapped away during the evening.
10:15 Mike also kindly walked me back to my hotel, as we discussed the events of the evening and what an impact SLDN has made in terms of outreach and growth. It's a great organization.
If you'd like to support the work of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, you can donate here.