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Murdered soldier's parents: Repeal 'don't ask, don't tell'

By Pat and Wally Kutteles, Special to CNN
Wally and Pat Kutteles
Wally and Pat Kutteles
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pat and Wally Kutteles have worked 10 years to repeal "don't ask, don't tell"
  • Their son, Pfc. Barry Winchell, was beaten to death with a bat as he slept
  • He went through constant, vicious harassment after rumors he was gay, they write
  • They believe DADT prevented him from reporting harassment to superiors

Editor's note: Pat and Wally Kutteles are the parents of Pfc. Barry Winchell, who was murdered 11 years ago at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Each year the couple travel to Washington to share the story of their son's murder with members of Congress in an effort to illustrate why "don't ask, don't tell" should be repealed.

Kansas City, Missouri (CNN) -- The coffee was brewing and we were just starting our day when the telephone rang the morning of July 5, 1999. It was a call that every parent prays never will come.

The Army colonel was calling from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where our son was based in the U.S. Army. A fellow soldier had attacked our son, Barry Winchell. He had been taken to a civilian hospital in Nashville, Tennessee.

We raced to the Kansas City airport. When we arrived at the hospital, Barry was clinging to life. His face was unrecognizable. Contrary to what the colonel had said on the telephone, Barry had not been kicked in the head by the other soldier. He had been beaten with a baseball bat as he slept in the barracks. The doctor said he had irreparable brain damage and recovery was unlikely.

Barry had been a victim of constant, vicious harassment after another soldier -- one of two involved in his murder -- started a rumor that he was gay.

Several of Barry's superiors were witnesses to the harassment, yet did nothing about it. Some of those superiors not only did nothing to stop the escalation of violence that would lead to our son's death, they also took part in the harassment.

Pfc. Barry Winchell
Pfc. Barry Winchell

One staff sergeant eventually stopped participating and started telling others to stop. Barry was one of his top soldiers and he noticed the effect the torment was having on him. The staff sergeant decided to file a complaint with a commanding officer, but it was ignored.

Army values were one of the things that attracted Barry to the service. Loyalty: Be true to your country, the Army, your unit, and other soldiers. Respect: Treat others with dignity and respect and expect others to do the same. Selfless service: Put the welfare of the nation, the Army, and your subordinates before your own. Integrity: Do what is right, legally and morally. Honor: Live up to the Army's values.

Several of Barry's superiors were witnesses to the harassment, yet did nothing about it.
--Pat and Wally Kutteles

Clearly, many stationed at Fort Campbell were not living up to these values. And it cost our son his life. On July 6, we said goodbye as the machines that kept Barry alive were turned off.

Barry was only 21. He loved the Army. He loved serving our country. And he was among the best in his company. Barry was awarded two Army Commendation Medals and one Army Achievement Medal with the Oak Leaf Cluster. He wanted to be the best he could be and eventually become a helicopter pilot.

Barry's death was -- and remains -- a heart-wrenching tragedy for us. In the days and months afterward, we were comforted by the hundreds of letters and e-mails we received. Many of the authors were gay service members. We realized that our son was not alone in the torture he endured. We realized that "don't ask, don't tell" essentially makes it impossible for gays or those, like Barry, who are perceived to be gay, to seek the help of their superiors without risking investigation and discharge.

Since then, we have worked tirelessly to ensure that Barry did not die in vain. We have spoken around the country, advocating tirelessly for repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." That is because DADT amounts to an endorsement of harassment and discrimination. It says to other service members that gays in the military are second-class citizens, that they are not worthy of the respect dictated in the Army's values. Those who assert that the law serves to protect gays in the military are wrong -- it corroborates the fears and bigotry of those who are anti-gay. Worse, it encourages those who are prone to violence to act on their rage.

Our son could be with these brothers and sisters in arms today, but he was taken from us just as he was beginning to realize his dream. He was a quiet, compassionate and strong young man -- the kind of dedicated soldier our country needs as we fight two wars. Nothing will replace him. Nothing will take away the pain that haunts us to this day.

DADT amounts to an endorsement of harassment and discrimination.
--Pat and Wally Kutteles
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Video: Do ask, do tell
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The attitude of society toward gays serving in the military has changed in the 17 years since DADT went into effect. It's no longer the divisive issue it used to be. When we go to Capitol Hill, we talk about the change we've witnessed in our lifetimes on LGBT -- lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered -- issues. It's clear to us that the younger generation of service members couldn't care less about sexual orientation. But they couldn't care more about integrity and honesty, serving one's country and being supportive of their comrades.

Our work to repeal the law that contributed to our son's death has given us focus. We look forward to the day when this law is repealed and when the armed forces adopt a policy that demonstrates clearly that all service members, including those who are gay or lesbian, are worthy of serving our country with dignity and integrity.

Only then can our sons and daughters feel safe in reporting harassment. Only then will their superiors, up the chain of command, be held fully responsible for protecting our sons and daughters equally, no matter what their sexual orientation.

Soon, members of the U.S. Senate will have an opportunity to ensure that Barry's death was not in vain, that no other young man or woman will be denied the chance to serve the country they love simply because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation. Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen has said it is the right thing to do. We urge senators to stand with Admiral Mullen and be on the right side of history.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Pat and Wally Kutteles.