A New Kind of Old Heave-Ho

For one local gay Coast Guardsman, military justice was not an oxymoron

Despite the Clinton administration's policy of "don't ask, don't tell," which has been in effect since 1994, the actual rules governing the presence of homosexuals in the military haven't really changed. If you're out, you're still out.

Miami Coast Guardsman James Dunning is definitely the former, and he has been since November 18, when a colleague found a sexually explicit letter Dunning had written to his gay lover. The colleague brought the letter to the attention of their superiors. Letter in hand, the commanding officer asked, and Dunning told.

His nineteen years in the Coast Guard entitled him to a hearing before being kicked out, but the fact that he admitted to writing the letter and being a homosexual meant the outcome was certain. And Dunning had a great deal to lose. If he were discharged before February 1998, he would not have completed the twenty years of service required for retirement. And one must retire from the military to receive a pension and full medical coverage. Dunning is HIV-positive, so the loss of medical benefits would be especially devastating.

But that's not what happened. On June 13 the Coast Guard Personnel Command in Washington, D.C., determined that instead of being immediately discharged for being an admitted homosexual, Dunning will be granted early retirement. His service to the Coast Guard will end on August 1; he'll receive a pension equal to 48.5 percent of his annual active-duty base pay of $21,000 (1.5 percent less than he would have received had he retired as planned), and he will maintain full medical benefits.

This decision doesn't mark a change in the military's policy toward gays and lesbians. According to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit organization that monitors "don't ask, don't tell" cases, 850 people were discharged from the military in 1996 for homosexuality. But Dunning says he sees an encouraging message in the Coast Guard's decision in his case: Being a good soldier, sailor, or Coast Guardsman does count for something. "Hey, sisters and brothers," he exhorts, "have faith."

Dunning, a native of Tupper Lake in upstate New York, says he was aware of his homosexuality long before he decided to enlist in the Coast Guard in 1978. He also knew that homosexuality was forbidden, but he didn't dwell on that obstacle. "I went into the service more with a feeling of, 'Hey, I'll go serve my country and have a decent job.' Not, 'Wow, I'm gay and I might get caught.'"

He has served at Coast Guard bases from Alaska to Cape Cod. By the time he was transferred to Group Miami's Miami Beach base in January 1994, he had been decorated numerous times (for, among other things, sea service, marksmanship, and three times for good conduct) and had reached the rank of petty officer. He had also managed to stay in the closet -- at least as far as the military was concerned.

Group Miami assigned him to the post of assistant navigator aboard the Hudson, a 160-foot construction cutter. Shortly after getting acquainted with his new ship, Dunning also began familiarizing himself with Miami's gay community. He had visited only one gay bar before he began attending Grace Metropolitan Community Church in Miami Shores. After services one Sunday, he approached a Birmingham, Alabama, native named Lonnie Burdette. "He walks up, and that was all she wrote," Burdette recalls. They began a relationship and moved into a house in North Miami within weeks. "When we first met, Lonnie had no idea I was in the military or that his life was about to go into upheaval," Dunning says almost apologetically.

The upheaval began this past November, while the Hudson was being overhauled in dry dock at the Hendry Corp. shipyard in Tampa, and her crew was working out of offices provided for them at the shipyard. All of the ship's personal computers were in these offices, as was the computers' printer.

On November 16 Dunning printed out a letter to Lonnie, from whom he would be separated for at least two weeks. The one-page letter pulsed with love, passion, and longing, graphically describing several sexual acts. Dunning says he sent the letter to Lonnie that day -- but it would soon resurface. Chief Petty Officer Arthur G. Nelson, also a member of the Hudson crew, later stated that he subsequently looked at the printer and saw a blinking "data ready" light, pressed the "line" button, and watched another copy of the letter print out.

In his official statement, Nelson wrote that he didn't specifically remember the acts described, but that "I do know it's vulger [sic] and appauling [sic] and has no place in our Coast Guard."

"He should have gone for a walk barefoot on the beach," says Norman Kent, a Fort Lauderdale attorney representing Dunning. "He should have looked at the moon and the stars, contemplated the universe."

Instead Nelson took the letter to his superior. She took it to the commanding officer of the Hudson, who straightforwardly asked Dunning if he was a homosexual. Dunning's affirmative response set the wheels of military justice turning. He was immediately transferred off the Hudson and assigned to a desk job at Group Miami's Miami Beach base until an administrative discharge board could be convened.

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?

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