You can’t put a price on Sara Isaacson’s integrity. Not $79,285.14. Not stripping her of her childhood dream of serving her country, just months away from her realizing it.
Three years into UNC’s ROTC program, Isaacson, 21, says she “came out to myself” as a lesbian. She didn’t give anyone a chance to ask; rather, she told.
“Whether someone would have found out or not, it would have involved me lying about it, and that was just something that I wasn’t willing to do,” she says. “I wasn’t willing to constantly live in fear that I would be outed.”
Now generals at Cadet Command, the central Army entity that doles out scholarships and places students at universities, are deciding if Isaacson should pay back her $79,285.14 scholarship because she won’t be able to complete her eight-year service obligation.
But that could soon change. On Monday, President Barack Obama worked out a legislative compromise that clears the way for a vote on repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Isaacson sent a letter to Obama last week, urging him to act. She’s also lobbied Congress.
“It seems extraordinarily harsh to expect her to pay back her scholarship,” says U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., a co-sponsor of repeal legislation, who met Isaacson in April.
“It does appear that ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ will end within the next few months. It should be the case that she can serve as an officer in the military and be openly gay, and certainly she should be allowed to continue in the ROTC program.”
Miller says legislators are finalizing a deal to move forward with a vote. Any change would not take effect until Dec. 1, when a report from the Pentagon on how to implement a new policy is set to be released.
Failing that, Isaacson doesn’t know how she would return the money that paid for seven semesters of tuition, fees and books.
Although repaying the sum is daunting, the hardest part of the process for Isaacson happened on May 9, the day she would have been commissioned as a second lieutenant along with her peers of three and a half years.
“I just sat down and thought about how much my life has changed in the past six months,” she says, recalling packing up her dorm room that day. “The entire plan that I had held for my life really dissolved in a 10-minute meeting with my commander.”
Honesty was her crime. Isaacson identified as straight when she accepted the scholarship in 2006. After her self-realization, she studied her options. She contacted the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a nationwide nonprofit that supports soldiers affected by the military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy. She talked to enlisted lesbians who had been blackmailed and sexually harassed. She thought about being unable to list a partner as next of kin. She wondered how her platoon could trust her with their lives if she was constantly hiding herself from them.
On Jan. 25, Isaacson handed UNC Army ROTC Col. Monte Yoder a memorandum stating her sexuality.
She didn’t think she had a choice. He disagreed.
Two hours later, she was dropped from her Army courses. Isaacson says Yoder told her he would recommend that she repay her scholarship. Yoder says that decision is between him and the generals, but he says they must be responsible with taxpayer money.
“We aren’t bashing Ms. Isaacson. She’s a fine young person, but she had to make a choice and we have to live with those choices,” Yoder says. “She’s made it clear that she doesn’t want to serve.”
Yet Isaacson says she desperately wants to honor her commitment. She simply refuses to lie to do it.”I would very much love to still be able to serve, and if I were given that opportunity I would go back into the military.”
Yoder did give her an opportunity on Feb. 15, but he required that she recant her January memorandum. Isaacson, who had the option because she’s not enlisted, declined to take back what she had stated.
“This whole thing about coming out to my commander was because I wasn’t willing to lie, ” she says. “I wouldn’t have been willing to lie and say, ‘Oh, just kidding, I’m not actually a lesbian.’”
Isaacson says. people need to realize that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has far-reaching consequences. “They need to realize that not only does it hurt the individuals and their friends and families, but it hurts our military to be taking capable soldiers away from units.”
Isaacson is also exceptional. Last summer she completed the Leadership Development and Assessment Course in Ft. Lewis, Wash., where all rising senior ROTC students nationwide compete in five weeks of physical and mental tests, including reconnaissance simulations, rappelling and marksmanship.
Isaacson ranked third out of 43 cadets in her troop and was ranked first in her unit by her peers. That gave her the first choice of branches. She chose air defense artillery.
She hopes that she can return to the service if Congress repeals “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” She’s working with UNC to get financial aid for her final year and is pursuing a chemistry degree. An online petition has 2,843 signatures pressuring UNC ROTC to rethink its decision. School administrators have been supportive, she says, but Cadet Command is in control of the scholarship decision.
Lt. Col. Mike Indovina, Cadet Command spokesman, says there’s a “due process staffing action” but didn’t have a timeline for the ruling.
Since her dismissal, Isaacson has traveled to Washington, D.C., twice in the last month. She and 50 students from UNC, N.C. State, Duke and Elon met with staffers from a dozen congressional offices. She received support from most of them, particularly staffers of Sen. Kay Hagan and Reps. David Price, Mel Watt and Miller.
As a result of the meetings, Price and fellow Reps. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., and Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., submitted a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
“It is our feeling that the practice of billing cadets expelled from the ROTC program solely because of their sexual orientation for their tuition adds insult to injury,” it reads. “We believe that Ms. Isaacson’s case vividly illustrates the need to repeal the discriminatory DADT policy once and for all.”
Isaacson says the reception from North Carolina’s Rep. Virginia Foxx and Sen. Richard Burr was less enthusiastic, calling an exchange with a Burr staffer “heated.”
Chandler Smith, a spokesman for Burr, wrote in an e-mail that they do not comment on constituent meetings but reiterated the senator’s support of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” “Our country is at war, and any changes to military personnel policies must be carefully reviewed to ensure they do not jeopardize the security and safety of our men and women in uniform, including the gay and lesbian members of our Armed Services bravely serving our country,” the e-mail states. “For this reason, he does not support a change in policy at this time.”
Meetings like the one with Burr have been challenging for Isaacson. So too has been the influx of e-mails and messages from strangers trying to persuade her to “become an ex-gay” and address her “treatable and preventable mental illness.”
Still, she has no second thoughts about coming out.
“I didn’t feel like I would be OK with myself at the end of the day if I had to compromise my integrity to keep my job,” she says.
“Integrity is one of the seven core Army values and that’s something that all of us who are in the military are supposed to live by every second of every day, whether someone is watching or not.”