Former military cadet Sara Isaacson owes $79,285.14 to the federal government—scholarship money she forfeited because she openly stated she is gay. A year and a half after she was dismissed from the military, she is still waiting for the White House and the Department of Defense to certify the repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which prohibited openly gay soldiers from serving. And a bill recently passed by the U.S. House could further delay that certification.
In 2009, Isaacson handed her commander an official written notice of her sexual orientation. She was later dismissed from the ROTC program and billed for the amount of her military scholarship, which covered full tuition, as well as a stipend for books and living expenses, to attend UNC. Even if the DADT repeal is certified, it's unclear whether she will have to reimburse the government.
"Oh, I think she'll have to pay," says Zeke Stokes, director of communications for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), a national organization that advocates for those affected by DADT.
"The breakdown of whether you have to pay back is whether the conduct is considered voluntary," Stokes explains. "In a case like Sara's, when you voluntarily come out, they're going to recoup against you. Unless Sara re-enters the ROTC when 'don't ask, don't tell' becomes certified, perhaps she could work out a deal with the military."
Re-enlisting with the ROTC is exactly what she plans to do. As soon as DADT is certified (there is no timetable for that) Isaacson says she wants to rejoin the ROTC in hopes of becoming a commissioned officer, a second lieutenant.
"Commissioning is a goal that I've held for many, many years. Nine years at this point and that's not something that's gone away. I will fight hard to serve that commission and wear that uniform and serve my country. I'm willing to go through whatever is required."
Congress passed DADT in 1993; since then, more than 14,000 service members have been fired, according to the SLDN. Last December, Congress passed a measure to repeal DADT, which President Obama signed, but it requires another step: The president, defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff must certify the repeal.
However, last month, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the National Defense Authorization Act, which is largely an appropriations bill. But before it reached the full House, the Armed Services Committee inserted and passed three amendments in the bill that could delay the DADT repeal process. Now the U.S. Senate is writing its version of the bill.
Nonetheless, Stokes and SLDN's legal director, Aaron Tax, say certification could happen as early as midsummer. "There's no time line by which they have to do that. These amendments have the potential to delay or derail repeal, but at this point it is farfetched. Repeal is on schedule," says Stokes.
Despite the congressional setback, Isaacson believes that certification will happen. "It's incredibly improbable that it will not get certified," she says.
Meanwhile, Isaacson has been taking community college classes. She plans to re-enroll at UNC and to graduate next May. She says she has no regrets. "I've had such support from my friends and family and even people who I didn't know. I've made incredible connections with people who have changed my life for the better. I'm actually struggling to articulate all of the little positives changes."
Isaacson has also spoken with lesbians who are currently serving and another who was discharged under DADT. Isaacson says these conversations have further solidified her decision to come out. "Speaking with the one who was currently serving and hearing some of the difficulties that she had, the way she feels like she has to hide and dissatisfaction she had because she was forced to hide just confirmed for me that I didn't think I would be OK lying every single day.
"I'm not doing this for the attention or the pat on the back," she adds. "It was never about that. It was about me being able to feel OK with myself at the end of the day. I'm a more genuine person now then I felt I was a year and a half ago. And I'd like to be given the opportunity to prove my merit."
Kristine Kapatos did her high school senior project at the Independent Weekly. She graduated this month from Ravenscroft School in Raleigh. She will attend Queens University in Charlotte in the fall.