Discharged, Choi Charges On

From street protests to hugging a senator, civilian status hasn't slowed DADT activist

Former Lt. Dan Choi, the face of the movement to repeal the military’s ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy since coming out on The Rachel Maddow Show in early 2009, was honorably discharged from the New York Army National Guard on June 29, a Guard spokesman confirmed on Wednesday, July 21.

Dan Choi
Dan Choi
(Photo by Todd Franson)

Within a month of his discharge, however, Choi had been arrested once for protesting against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and celebrated once for an exchange that ended with him hugging the majority leader.

In conjunction with a Get Equal protest shutting down a street on the Las Vegas Strip in protest of Reid’s inaction on the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), Choi – along with Get Equal co-director Robin McGehee and six others – was arrested on July 20.

A few days later, on July 24, Choi had arranged with the moderator of a question-and-answer session with Reid and Netroots Nation participants to have Reid given his West Point ring and documents relating to his discharge and Reid’s promise to Choi to keep that from happening.

After Reid attempted to give the ring back but then agreed to keep it until ”the bill is signed,” the moderator pointed out Choi in the audience. Choi then jumped up onstage and first shook hands with and then hugged Reid, adding, ”We’re going to hold you accountable.”

Whatever the intended effect – from embarrassing Reid, as one reporter claimed, to prompting the exact response that occurred, as others claimed – the result among the liberal attendees was applause and a nearly unprecedented, unified display of enthusiastic support for LGBT equality in a non-LGBT-specific audience.

Choi, however celebrated he was on Saturday, had only days earlier first addressed his June 29 military discharge. Lt. Col. Rich Goldenberg with the New York National Guard responded on July 21 to an inquiry from Metro Weekly about the discharge, which was first reported by Gay City News. Goldenberg said a certified letter was sent to Choi detailing the honorable discharge and that ”Choi was informed on 29 June” via a phone message left by his unit commander. Other calls were made to him as well, he said.

Goldenberg acknowledged, ”I do not believe he returned any of their calls,” but added that ”the New York National Guard made every attempt to make sure that Lt. Choi was fully informed of the action.”

Choi, earlier on July 21, apparently responding to the Gay City News report, posted on Twitter, ”No, I have not seen any discharge papers. When/if they come, I’ll show and tell.”

Speaking to Metro Weekly on the evening of July 21, Choi said, ”When Gay City News reported that, and Newsweek called to say they’re preparing a story, I was like, ‘Somebody’s just confused again.”’

Calling the news ”absolutely devastating in a lot of ways,” Choi said, ”Well, what a long journey it’s been.”

”As much as you prepare yourself … I’ve built the armor up … really,” he said from Netroots Nation. ”You can never really prepare for what it means emotionally. There is a pain that comes with that, that only a soldier who goes through that can feel. It’s not easy to hear it. It’s saying, ‘You’re fired.’

”But, you know what, now I’m an activist. It’s been a really long journey in that regard, too. Service comes in many different forms. I don’t intend ever to stop standing up for what I know is right. I still encourage everyone, whether they’re a soldier or not, to stand up for what they know is right.

”Facing consequences, breaking ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ that’s all continued service,” he said.

The Guard later provided additional information, including that the certified letter was signed for on July 6 by a person bearing the same last name as Choi at his ”home of record” in Orange County, Calif. Choi confirmed that the name is his father’s, but added that he’s not spoken to him since October 2009.

”For the record, I haven’t gotten those papers,” Choi said on July 21, although he did speak with his unit commander confirming the news on July 22, at which time he released a statement saying, ”After 11 years since beginning my journey at West Point and after 17 months of serving openly as an infantry officer this is both an infuriating and painful announcement.”

The documents contained in the mailing included, according to the Guard, a form detailing Choi’s service in the National Guard; a copy of the discharge order from the New York Army National Guard; and the chief of the Army National Guard Bureau’s finding that Choi’s recognition of federal service was to be revoked for violating law and regulation relating to DADT. The chief who signed the finding, Gen. Craig R. McKinley, is a four-star general and the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. National Guard, according to Goldenberg.

Because of the honorable-discharge status, Goldenberg said that Choi will maintain ”the officer’s title as a former commissioned officer.”

Looking at it a different way, Choi said in his statement, ”The true honor and dignity of service does not come from a piece of paper, a pension or paycheck, a rank or status; only an unflinching commitment to improve the lives of others can determine the nature of one’s service.”

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