COLUMBIA–Our commuter plane out of Washington DC headed to Columbia, SC was overbooked. Along with the power suits of public servants headed to Columbia for overnight business trips, there were hints of another kind of uniform on board: military servicemen and women.
Columbia is home to Fort Jackson, the Army’s largest Initial Entry Training Center in the United States. According to the US Army website, Fort Jackson trains 50% of the Army’s Basic Combat Training recruits and 60% of the women entering the Army each year.
One such woman struck up a conversation with me down at baggage claim. Kate (for privacy, this is not her real name) initiated the conversation by asking me if Columbia was my home. I explained that I was a visitor, here from the University of Washington Communication Department in partnership with the Seattle Times, working with students to capture stories of the GOP primary. Her face broke into a smile at this news.
I returned the favor, and learned that Kate was reporting for basic training at Fort Jackson. I placed her in her mid twenties. She had kind bespectacled eyes, a pixie cut, and carried herself with a confidence that belied her age. I posed a question to her.
“May I ask what inspired you to join the military?”
Kate turned her face to look over at the group of new recruits gathered in their designated waiting area. We were perhaps 20 feet from them and out of hearing range. She turned back to me and lowered her voice anyway.
“Honestly?” she said looking me straight in the eye, “It was the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. That was tipping point for me. I wanted to serve, and now I feel I can.”
December 22, 2011, marked the one year anniversary of President Obama’s signing of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Repeal Act, allowing gay and lesbian service members, like Kate, to serve openly. With the exception of Ron Paul, the GOP Presidential candidates are against the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT). Rick Santorum calls it “injecting special privilege” into the military and Newt Gingrich does not miss a chance to remind voters that he voted for the original DADT legislation in 1993. Rick Perry refers to DADT as a “workable policy,” and while Mitt Romney is on record in a 1994 letter to Log Cabin Republicans supporting “gays and lesbians being able to serve openly and honestly,” he now maintains that the repeal was a mistake.
What does this mean for Kate?
When I asked what awaited her after Ft. Jackson, she answered that she expects to be deployed to Kosovo in 2013. But whether Kate makes it to the Balkans may have more to do with just her own commitment to serve this country. It may very well depend on who occupies the White House come January 2013.