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WA Veterans Praise End of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

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By JULIE MUHLSTEIN
The Daily Herald

MALTBY, Wash. – Keith McGregor and Howard Voland met on an outing with a gay hiking group at Mount Rainier. They soon learned they had much in common.

Both Army veterans, they served as officers in the 1970s — almost two decades before “don’t ask, don’t tell” became law.

“We realized we were stationed just 35 miles apart in Germany,” Voland told The Daily Herald (http://bit.ly/naZmdt ) on Monday.

In the Army, their paths never crossed. Yet some of their recollections are remarkably similar.

“The closet is the worst place to be,” said Voland, a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. “Cadets pledge that they will not lie, cheat or steal. But I was living a lie.”

“When I went into the service, I knew part of my life was going to have to be on hold,” McGregor said. “I am pretty sure it was general knowledge that I was gay. I was the only single officer in my unit,” he said.

McGregor and Voland have been together 27 years. Both are 62. At their home south of Snohomish, they talked recently about growing up gay, their years in the Army and the Sept. 20 repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The policy had been in effect since 1993, when President Bill Clinton issued a directive that people joining the military were not to be asked about sexual orientation. Gays could serve so long as they didn’t reveal their secret. Homosexuals weren’t necessarily subject to discharge, as they had been under the Uniform Code of Military Justice signed in 1950 by President Harry S. Truman.

They never served under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but McGregor and Voland saw the policy as untenable. “It was making what were supposed to be honorable people lie,” Voland said.

A Monroe native and former owner and publisher of The Monroe Monitor newspaper, Voland earned a master’s degree in communications at the University of Washington in the 1990s. His thesis topic was news coverage of gays in the military.

He is also a founding member of Knights Out, an organization of West Point alumni, faculty and staff that advocated for the right of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender soldiers to serve openly.

Openness didn’t come easily for Voland and McGregor. They were raised when homosexuality was so secret it was barely whispered about.

McGregor grew up on a farm in rural Mississippi. “I had never heard the word homosexual until college,” he said.

He graduated from high school in 1967 and earned his bachelor’s degree from Rice University in Houston. He said he dated women in college but also began to discover his true self. “I never came out to my parents. My mother died in 1985, never knowing,” McGregor said.

He was in ROTC in college and entered the Army as a second lieutenant.

McGregor ended up serving in Mannheim, Germany, as an Army battalion adjutant in maintenance and supply. While in the military, he said he encountered other gay people only through community theater and in clubs. “As far as the troops, no way,” he said.

Just once, he said, he feared his sexuality might be discovered. While in Germany, he saw a senior noncommissioned officer at a gay club. To this day, he doesn’t know if that man saw him.

He stayed in the Army until 1976 and was honorably discharged as a first lieutenant.

Voland’s early life was different from his partner’s, but their histories share common threads. Both of their fathers were World War II veterans, and both had spent time as boys at Culver Military Academy in Indiana.

After he graduated from Monroe High School in 1967, Voland said, “my dad wanted to really push me to go to West Point.” When he at first wasn’t admitted to the prestigious school, he spent a year at the United States Military Academy Preparatory School at West Point, N.Y.

After four years at West Point, Voland graduated in 1972, “the first class not to go to Vietnam,” he said.

An Army second lieutenant at graduation, Voland served at Fort Lewis and later managed a cold storage facility in Kaiserslautern, Germany. When his father died in 1978, he left the Army as a captain and returned to civilian life in Monroe. He ran the family’s newspaper business before selling The Monroe Monitor 20 years ago.

Closeted in the military, Voland also felt he couldn’t openly live as a gay man during his years as a small-town newspaper publisher. “In retrospect, I realize how being gay changed my whole life,” said Voland, who, despite West Point credentials, could have neither a military career nor a fulfilling personal life.

For gay military members, the consequences of being discovered varied. “It depended on the commanding officer,” Voland said. “Some were sympathetic.” During their years of service, gays could be charged with a crime. And those receiving a less-than-honorable discharge lost benefits, including those of the G.I. Bill, Voland said.

Today they refuse to live a lie. They wear rings signifying their bond. McGregor is a playwright, active in the Everett-based Reunion Theatre Group. Voland coordinates the Master Gardeners program for Washington State University Snohomish County Extension.

For them, the ban on gay people serving openly didn’t come soon enough. Too late is better than never.

“With ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and the previous policy, you were losing terrific people. It was a huge waste of resources,” Voland said. “And it was asking people to live a lie. It’s not a choice, who people are.”

“It’s fairness. We’re all part of the same country,” McGregor said.

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