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My secret life under 'don't ask, don't tell'

By Joan E. Darrah, Special to CNN
  • Joan E. Darrah says she lived two lives in the Navy, wondering if each day was the last
  • Darrah says she pretended her partner didn't exist, that she was straight, avoided people
  • She says a close brush with death on 9/11 caused her to reassess life under policy
  • Darrah: "I know we can do better than 'don't ask, don't tell' "

Editor's note: Retired Navy Capt. Joan E. Darrah served 29½ years as a naval intelligence officer and was chief of staff and deputy commander at the Office of Naval Intelligence. She has received several awards: three Legion of Merits, three Meritorious Service Medals, three Navy Commendation Medals and the Navy Achievement Medal. Darrah lives with her partner of 19 years, Lynne Kennedy, in Alexandria, Virginia.

(CNN) -- When I first joined the Navy, I had no idea that I was gay. I was well into my career when I realized this fact, but I was doing well as evidenced by the awards and promotions I was receiving.

In addition, I really enjoyed what I was doing and felt I was making a difference. So I opted to continue to serve, even though I knew that I would have to hide my true identity.

For most of my career in the Navy, I lived two lives and went to work each day wondering if that would be my last. Whenever the admiral would call me to his office, 99.9 percent of me was certain that it was to discuss an operational issue. But there was always that fear in the back of my mind that somehow I had been "outed," and he was calling me to his office to tell me that I was fired. So many simple things that straight people take for granted could have ended my career, even a comment such as "My partner and I went to the movies last night."

Do you think "don't ask, don't tell" should be reversed?

In spite of the stress of living under "don't ask, don't tell" and the constant fear of losing my job, somehow my partner, Lynne Kennedy, an openly gay reference librarian at the Library of Congress, and I had learned to deal with the policy and make the requisite sacrifices.

I had pretended to be straight and played the games most gays in the military are all too familiar with -- not daring to have a picture of Lynne on my desk, being reluctant to go out to dinner with her, telling her not to call me at work except in a real emergency, not going to church together, avoiding shopping for groceries together and generally staying out of sight of anyone I knew when we were together. I didn't want to have to lie about who Lynne was or have someone conclude that we were more than casual friends.

But it was the events of September 11, 2001, that caused me to appreciate fully the true impact of "don't ask, don't tell" on our lives.

Flight No. 77 slammed into the Pentagon and destroyed the exact space I had left eight minutes earlier.
--Joan E. Darrah, retired naval intelligence officer
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At 8:30 a.m. on September 11, I went to a meeting in the Pentagon. At 9:30 a.m. I left that meeting. At 9:37 a.m., American Airlines Flight No. 77 slammed into the Pentagon and destroyed the exact space I had left less than eight minutes earlier, killing seven of my colleagues.

In the days and weeks that followed, I went to several funerals and memorial services for shipmates who had been killed. Most of my co-workers attended these services with their spouses whose support was critical at this difficult time, yet I was forced to go alone.

As the numbness began to wear off, it hit me how incredibly alone Lynne would have been had I been killed. The military is known for how it pulls together and helps people; we talk of the "military family," which is a way of saying we always look after each other, especially in times of need. But none of that support would have been available for Lynne, because under "don't ask, don't tell," she couldn't exist.

In fact, Lynne would have been one of the last people to know had I been killed, because nowhere in my paperwork or emergency contact information had I dared to list her name.

This realization caused us to stop and reassess exactly what was most important in our lives. During that process, we realized that the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was causing us to make a much bigger sacrifice than either of us had ever admitted. Eight months later, in June 2002, I retired after more than 29 years in the U.S. Navy, an organization I will always love and respect.

We are now committed to doing everything we possibly can to get rid of "don't ask, don't tell" so that our military can finally be open to all qualified and motivated individuals who want to serve their country.

As a retired naval officer, I am especially pleased with the leadership that Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has demonstrated on repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." I believe that the end of the policy is in sight. I have every confidence that our military will easily adjust to this change and that with strong leadership, we will ultimately be stronger and better for it.

Ironically, it was in the military that I learned to work with people of different backgrounds, different religions, different ethnicities and different skin colors and to focus on getting the mission accomplished. I learned the importance of respecting everyone and judging people on their performance and abilities, not on a preconceived prejudice.

Twenty-six countries allow gays to serve openly in their militaries, and from all reports, things are going just fine. This is the right step for our country, our military and for gay people both currently serving and those who would like to be part of the world's finest military. I have great love and respect for our country, but I know we can do better than "don't ask, don't tell."

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Joan E. Darrah.