A More Frequently Witnessed "Historic" Event

Monday, June 23, 2014

[NOTE: this is a consolidated product--one part reporting, one part analyzing and a heap of opining for good measure--and I didn't know what label to use...I opted for none.]

Major General John Shanahan, commander of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency, presents the unit guidon to Colonel Leah Lauderback, the first openly gay leader of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, during the May 28th change-of-command ceremony at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. (photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force / Airman 1st Class Samuel Earick)

It's an increasingly rare occasion when a person can claim to be involved in a truly historic event this far along in our civilization's history. About 400 people, including me, can now do that after witnessing what was initially thought to be just a run-of-the-mill biennial display of military continuity and tradition at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base's National Museum of the United States Air Force.  On May 28th, Colonel Leah Lauderback assumed command of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center from Colonel Aaron Prupas but its historical significance was not because of her gender but due solely to the person she recently married. As it turns out, Lauderback is now the first openly gay commander of this storied intelligence organization and her spouse, Brenda, was publicly included in this ceremony just a little over two years after the Defense Department's rescinding of a policy that banned the disclosure of same-sex relations.

Colonel Lauderback's biography in the ceremony's program had no mention of a family or spouse.

There was no foreshadowing of this news before the event (unless you want to include a very unfortunate coincidence on The Dayton Daily News' website where a story about her nomination appears directly below one that mentions a 5-year old "tomboy" being singled out at a Christian elementary school in Virginia). The local press outlets were more concerned about her local connections (she grew up in the Dayton area and her father worked at the unit she would be commanding) and NASIC's pending announcement about the $1 billion ATEP II contract that has attracted a lot of interest among Dayton's defense-related companies. Even the commemorate program was devoid of any familial mentions for any member of the official party. Not until the ceremony narrator's courtesy mentions of attending family members at the beginning of the event--to include Lauderback's spouse--were made did I and others in attendance know this would be a groundbreaking occasion. I looked around to see if there was any visible reactions within the crowd and, as Joe Cogliano stated in his Dayton Business Journal article, "it didn't seem to phase anyone."

The Dayton Daily News slightly buried the day's lede but did a good job of addressing the issues faced by similar couples in the state of Ohio later in the article. (screen capture of electronic edition courtesy of The Dayton Daily News)

The actual "switchover" from the outgoing officer to the incoming one takes about a minute to play out and the rest of the gathering revolves around remarks by those two participants as well as the officiating officer--normally the immediate supervisor in the overall chain of command. Major General John Shanahan, commander of the Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Agency based in San Antonio, Texas, was the next member to acknowledge Brenda's attendance and role in Lauderback's personal life and they were followed by Prupas' own mention in his final words to the NASIC workforce. As the final speaker, Lauderback provided some details about their union (the wedding occurred in California about four weeks' prior to the move to Dayton) that helped fill in the recent updates to her life story. After she finished, the attendees rose to the notes of The Air Force Song that accompanied the departure of the official party from the museum who then made their way over to a follow-on reception at the base club.
Dayton's NBC affiliate WDTN was the first to post about the ceremony but avoided mentioning its historical significance. (photo courtesy of WDTN/Paul Rodzinka)

I was curious to see how this "first" would be covered by the local media and it was truly a mixed bag. WDTN was the first to upload their web-based account at 12:32--less than two hours after its conclusion but I could find no video nor mentions of anything besides the usual "boilerplate" used to describe military ceremonies to a civilian audience. Next up was the Dayton Business Journal's account about an hour later that included the previously cited "fazed" comment (it was the only one not in line with business-oriented information). The co-owned ABC and Fox affiliates (WKEF and WRGT) posted their text-only articles shortly after 3PM (their shared item can only be viewed at this cached link) and they also lacked the historic context.

WHIO's Kate Bartley provided a television report but there was no mention of Colonel Lauderback's historic achievement for that station's viewers.

Two Cox Media outlets (WHIO-TV and The Dayton Daily News) had reporters and cameras at the location and it was Kate Bartley who first brought the story to that station's viewers during the early evening newscast; however, there was no mention of the true historic nature of the ceremony. As a print journalist, Barrie Barber has the luxury of flushing out details about his subjects and he devoted about a third of his reporting to Lauderback's personal life and how she and her spouse will have to cope for legitimacy like other same-sex couples in a state that doesn't recognize their legal union.

The base's Skywriter publication made no mention of the "uniqueness" of Colonel Lauderback's assignment. (screen capture of electronic edition courtesy of The Skywriter)

The one that I really wanted to see would be the version crafted by the base's Public Affairs Office and by the editors of The Skywriter, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base's official newspaper. To be honest, I wasn't sure if (or how) they would broach this still-sensitive subject and, meeting my low expectations, they avoided it completely.

Air Force Major General Patricia Rose (second from left) and her spouse Julie Roth (on her immediate left) at the May 2013 promotion ceremony at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. (photo courtesy of SouthCoastToday.com)

To satiate my curiosity about how rare this event might actually be, I did a little online research and what I found was surprising. It turns out that Colonel Lauderback isn't even the most senior ranking person assigned to Wright-Patterson who is half of a same-sex couple. While not openly displayed on the Air Force Material Command's public web page, Major General Patricia Rose, a member of the Air Force Reserve, is assigned as the mobilization assistant to General Janet Wolfenbarger, the first female 4-star general in that service's 66-year history. At her 2013 promotion ceremony, Rose openly acknowledged her female spouse whom she married earlier that year (they had been together for 25 years but couldn't say anything about it until the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", or DADT, in September 2011). Rose and her spouse, Julie Roth, avoid most of the legal barriers to their union that Lauderback will face because they live in Washington state where same-sex marriage is recognized (the state of Ohio is currently fighting a federal court ruling that the state's constitutional ban of gay marriage violates the Due Process clause of the US Constitution).

Air Force Staff Sergeant Lenny Matlovich "outed" himself in 1975 to fight the military's ban on homosexuality.

While there have been major strides in diversity and equality within the US military establishment (there is an Army lesbian one-star general and even a gay male Undersecretary of the Air Force), what intrigues me about Lauderback is the diametric conflicts between her chosen professional and her personal life. While I have no qualms about homosexuals in general, the one thing that was drummed into me during my early days in the intelligence world was that you had to be totally honest in order to effectively do your job within those very sensitive confines. When I entered the military late in the Carter years, there was no codified ban on the individual--just on the activity of "unnatural carnal copulation" (Article 125 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice defined it loosely as "sodomy"). To fight then-ongoing legal challenges (the most newsworthy one being a test case posed by Air Force Staff Sergeant Leonard P. "Lenny" Matlovich in 1975), the Reagan Administration changed a defense regulation in 1981 that explicitly stated that homosexuality was "incompatible with military service" and that precipitated a number of mass command-directed "witch hunts" I got to see firsthand at several overseas bases. A compromise attempt to assuage the growing social pressure on the military to conform to societal pressure, the 1993 DADT policy, fell short of that goal and forced many people to deny, hide or lie about their sexuality and, fortunately, that dishonesty was allowed to end in 2011.

The cover of a widely panned 2001 US Army comic book guide that outlined that service's take on the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

Compounding those restrictive uniformed rules was an Eisenhower-era executive order declaring homosexuality (declared a "sexual perversion") to be a security risk and could result in the denial or termination of federal employment--to include those requiring the utmost loyalty and trustworthiness that background checks were supposed to guarantee compliance. While removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as a mental disorder in 1973 and that existing ban on most civil service employment was dropped in 1975, it wasn't until 1995 that such restrictions based solely on sexuality were removed for openly gay civilian candidates being submitted for security clearances. Due to DADT, military members like Lauderback still faced the risk of discharge if they divulged such personal information when interviewed for their initial investigations or periodic updates (although that potential jeopardy was eliminated during DoD revisions to that policy in 2010).

Petty Officer 2nd Class Marissa Gaeta, left, kisses her girlfriend of two years, Petty Officer 3rd Class Citlalic Snell, at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek in Virginia Beach on Wednesday, Dec. 22. It's a tradition at Navy homecomings that one sailor is chosen by raffle to be first off the ship to kiss a loved one. Wednesday, for the first time, the reunited couple was same-sex. (photo courtesy of Brian Clark/The Virginian-Pilot)

Based upon then-current regulations and Colonel Lauderback's own biography, it appears that her sexuality placed her in violation of both of these critical components of being a military intelligence officer (and should've prevented it from ever happening). Entering the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Clemson University at some point in 1989, that period of service was still considered to be covered by the existing Department of Defense regulations that, at that time, barred service by homosexuals whether or not they actually engaged in sexual activity with someone of the same sex. DADT, which did allow homosexuals to serve if they did not disclose their sexual orientation, did not go into effect until February 28, 1994 when then-Second Lieutenant Lauderback was about halfway through her intelligence technical training at Goodfellow Air Force Base and well beyond submitting her initial paperwork for the security clearance required to do that particular kind of work at follow-on assignments in Korea, Germany and North Carolina (her first reinvestigation would've occurred in the 1997-98 time period while at Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base which was after the 1995 IC change but fell well short of the 2010 DoD revision date).

The United States Military District of Washington Color Guard marched in the Capitol Pride parade on June 7th. (graphic courtesy of Kevin Cobb)

You may ask why I would dredge up this "ancient" history when discussing this present-day milestone.  My reasons revolve around the tenets of fidelity, honesty and hypocrisy which are anathema to someone who currently or is projected to sit in a position of command responsibility. Being in charge of a military organization, at whatever level, places an inordinate amount of accountability on a person's shoulders over all facets of their subordinates' careers (and, depending upon the location/situation, their very lives). For minor infractions under the military's Uniform Code of Military Justice legal system, a commanding officer can convict and punish subordinates without the need of a judge or jury (they serve in both capacities).

An attendee holds the program for the Defense Department's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month event at the Pentagon, June 26, 2012. ( DOD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley)

As an enlisted person, I was governed by rules that spelled out what kind of personal and professional relationship I could have with my commanders and other superior officers. While not specifically called out, the foundation for these associations was trust in the superior's experience, knowledge and character (these were supposed to be vetted by their own bosses prior to installation into their positions). To put this into a layperson's language, if someone talks the talk, then they also had to walk the walk. While not placed into a formal commanding position until June of 2009 (two full years before DADT was rescinded), she exercised considerable influence in the lives of her direct subordinates and directly represented them to higher levels for both praise and punitive actions if/when warranted.

President Obama signs the Don't Ask Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010 in the auditorium of the Interior Department headquarters on December 22, 2010. (public domain photo courtesy of Chuck Kennedy, White House photographer)

While there was a "trigger" mechanism in place for DADT-related discharges (a disclosure of some kind), investigations were required and all levels of a person's chain-of-command would be polled prior to carrying those out. As a member of a group that was forced to deny their very genetic make-up as a requirement for continued service/employment, one could only imagine the immense internal struggle between following the then-current regulations or doing the right thing as more and more of society is realizing today involving a fellow member. While there is no tangible proof that Colonel Lauderback ever violated her military responsibilities regarding DADT, her self "outing" and recent marriage could plant the seed of circumstantial evidence of such a preference and greatly tarnish the trust any organization may place in her during her tenure. Conversely, one could make the argument that the burden of keeping this information close-hold for almost two decades forced her to be an extremely vigilant officer and someone who could be trusted with confidential matters as well as state secrets.

A flyer for Wright-Patterson AFB's initial LGBT-themed observance. (courtesy of Wright-Patterson AFB Facebook page)

Such potential pitfalls have been removed for future commanders by the revocations of these sexuality centric bans in both the US military and intelligence establishments and their growing acceptance/inclusion of these former "pariahs" into their respective communities. Earlier this month, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base announced (through its Facebook page) that it was going to locally observe LGBT Pride Month, an event that has been celebrated at the Department of Defense level since 2012 and was allowed to be celebrated at individual military installations starting last year. History was also recently made when an official military color guard was allowed to march in the District of Columbia's annual Capitol Pride parade on June 7th.

A screen capture of the ODNI's announcement of celebrating LGBT Pride Month. (graphic courtesy of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence website)

Back in March, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, addressed the Intelligence Community Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Allies (IC LGBTA) summit at the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland. In his prepared remarks, he outlined his own "evolution" and proactivity with members of this grouping during his own five-decade professional career. Towards the end of his speech, he quoted the late renowned science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke to describe where the US Intelligence Community now stands on LGBT issues:

We stand now at the turning point between two eras. Behind us is a past to which we can never return.

While I would almost completely agree with the DNI's sentiment, Lauderback represents a very small percentage of current officials who, in my opinion, require an additional level of reverse scrutiny based upon their acknowledged duplicity while serving within our national security organizations. Maybe it's my inner "Abe Simpson" coming out here but there were many extremely qualified people who had their careers derailed and their lives impacted over the recent decades simply because they decided to be true to themselves (and to their military superiors). Those who stayed in had to adopt a fraudulent persona which compromised their overall integrity and could negatively impact them in roles requiring probity and truthfulness.

General Shanahan had a multitude of candidates to pick from for that NASIC position and one can only hope that he thoroughly reviewed all applicable components before making his final decision. If it were my choice, I would've included that one final subjective condition into the overall objective process. Am I saying that she should be barred from command? Not at all. What I am stating here is that she would have to be head and shoulders above the next candidate in order to get my nod and only her boss can answer that question. It's my personal belief that command billets are exclusive by design and that each should be reserved for the "walkers" and not for the "talkers". With very little familiarity with her overall career, I am simply reserving my judgment on her pedigree.

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