Decorated Airman Anxiously Awaits New Policy on Gays
Monday, August 3, 2009
For Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, time is running out on efforts to overturn restrictions on gays serving in the U.S. military.
The weapons system officer -- who during 18 years of service has flown combat missions in F-15E fighters and other aircraft over Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia, and now serves as assistant director of operations for an Air Force squadron in Idaho -- faces discharge after a civilian reported to authorities last year that Fehrenbach is gay.
After investigating, the Air Force charged him last September with damaging its good order and discipline. The "don't ask, don't tell" law, passed by Congress in 1993, prohibits gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals from serving openly in the U.S. armed forces.
Fehrenbach, who has nine Air Medals, including one for heroism under fire during an enemy ambush near Baghdad in 2003, intended to resign. But he changed his mind last fall with the prospect of a Barack Obama presidency.
As a candidate, Obama promised that the law would be overturned, but the administration has moved cautiously, not wanting to wage a costly political battle on the divisive issue during the president's first months in office, as President Bill Clinton did.
"Hearing the president's promises last fall, I thought he would follow through," Fehrenbach said. "It's just been disappointing because we've seen nothing."
In April, a review board ruled against Fehrenbach, and unless Air Force Secretary Michael Donley rejects the recommendation, he will be dismissed. If he is unable to retire with 20 years of service, Fehrenbach will lose nearly $50,000 a year in retirement pay as well as medical benefits. More disappointing, Fehrenbach said, is being unable to serve the country in a time of war.
"It doesn't make sense to throw out someone who's ready, willing and able," he said.
"We've heard the right words from the president," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an organization working to overturn the military's ban on gays. "Now, we need to see follow-up on the words."
A White House spokesman said that the president continues to support repeal but that the lead needs to come from Congress. "The president has said he thinks it should be done legislatively," Tommy Vietor said.
Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee agreed to hold its first hearing on the issue this fall. Sarvis called the development "very significant," but said strong White House leadership will be needed to get legislation through Congress.
"There's definitely a path for 60 votes for repeal," Sarvis said. "Our focus is on getting the votes one at a time."