In the interim, the Coast Guard gave Dunning a blood test and found out what he had learned that past September: He was HIV-positive. (Burdette also is positive, and has known since 1987. Both remain asymptomatic.)
Dunning's administrative discharge board convened at Group Miami on January 22. After hearing glowing testimony from the Hudson crew and others at Group Miami -- and, of course, after reading the infamous letter -- the board "recommended without dissent that ... James D. Dunning be retained in the Coast Guard until the expiration of his current enlistment."
Norman Kent's assessment of the board: "A group of people with honor." Capt. Thomas Paar, commanding officer of Group Miami, concurred in writing that Dunning should be retained. The length and quality of Dunning's service were among the factors he took into account. "It is not my intention to set or alter Coast Guard policy," Paar wrote. "I have tried to take a pragmatic approach to an evolving issue."
Dunning's file then wended its way up the chain of command. Next stop: District 7, encompassing Georgia, South Carolina, and most of Florida. Rear Adm. John W. Lockwood, district commander, disagreed with Paar and the board and believed that Dunning should be immediately discharged. "The [letter] itself is an unequivocal admission that its writer participated in homosexual acts as defined by Article 12-D-4b," Lockwood wrote on March 27. "I do not believe I have the discretion to recommend retention and subsequent retirement."
But Coast Guard Personnel Command in Washington did have such discretion, and exercised it on June 13. "Personnel Command decided that a fair and equitable solution would be for Petty Ofcr. Dunning to retire on August 1," says Senior Chief Petty Officer Brandy Ian, a spokeswoman for Coast Guard headquarters. "He'll be retiring six months early, with an honorable discharge."
The early retirement means that Dunning, who turns 40 in July, will retain medical coverage (which is already paying for his anti-HIV drug regimen) and nearly all of the pension money he and Burdette had been banking on. The two men are in the process of turning the upstate New York homestead where Dunning grew up into a five-room bed-and-breakfast; the prospect of losing all pension money would have made the difficult venture even more trying.
Though he is heartened by the Coast Guard's decision, Dunning still believes the armed forces' policy toward gay people needs to be changed. "There has got to come a time in the military when you can be who you are," he says. "If you and I were in a war, are you gonna care if I'm a faggot, or are you gonna care if I know how to shoot?