One important lesson for the estimated thousands of lesbian or gay servicemembers currently serving is that even if they don’t ask and you don’t tell, you are never safe from persecution.
Another lesson: They’re not just taking your service, they’re taking your veteran’s benefits.
Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, a decorated military weapons systems officer who grew up in the Dayton area, is being recommended for discharge after 18 years of service for homosexual conduct, an Air Force spokesperson said.
The move has made Fehrenbach, who was born at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and graduated from Wayne High School in Huber Heights, a face on the controversial Donâ€™t Ask, Donâ€™t Tell policy for gay military personnel because of his high rank and distinguished career.
â€œVictor is a great human face that shows the problem that is â€˜Donâ€™t ask, Donâ€™t Tell.â€™ This is happening every day,â€ said Kevin Nix, spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a national non-profit organization that is providing Fehrenbach with free legal counsel.
Fehrenbach, 39, an assistant director of operations for the 366th Operations Support Squadron at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, said Wednesday, May 27, that he was outed by a civilian acquaintance.
Fehrenbachâ€™s sister, Angela Trumbauer of Huber Heights, said her brother served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo and was awarded nine air medals, including one for heroism during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
â€œNow the Air Force is telling him he is no longer worthy of wearing the uniform because he is gay,â€ she said. â€œItâ€™s out and out discrimination.â€
Fehrenbach said he kept his private life so private that no one he flew with or worked with in the military knew he was gay.
â€œI kept it very, very quiet. My family didnâ€™t know until last week,â€ he said in a phone interview Wednesday, May 27.
Fehrenbach said he decided to tell his seven older brothers and sisters and his mother that he was gay and was being discharged from the Air Force because he wanted to go public with his story.
â€œIn my heart I knew I needed to fight,â€ he said, adding that everyone in his family, including his mother, agreed with him.
Fehrenbach followed in the military footsteps of his late father, Air Force Lt. Col. Arthur J. Fehrenbach, a navigator whose last duty station was Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
A board of inquiry hearing was held April 15, on the 30th anniversary of his fatherâ€™s death.
â€œThis was one date that had a major impact on my life, twice,â€ said Fehrenbach.
The board, made up of five colonels, listened to all the evidence and recommended an honorable discharge after finding â€œcontinued presence was inconsistent with morale, good order and unit cohesion,â€ Fehrenbach said.
The recommendation for honorable discharge is moving forward to a review board and ultimately will work its way up to the secretary of the Air Force.
â€œThere is a glimmer of hope but we donâ€™t know of any case in 12,500 that have gone through where a service secretary has retained someone after they have been recommendation for discharge,â€ he said.
Fehrenbach graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1991 on a full, four-year Air Force ROTC scholarship. He earned a bachelorâ€™s degree in international relations.
â€œI think 9/11 sort of gave everyone a renewed purpose and I was more dedicated than ever and really never planned on leaving,â€ he said.
A public information officer there on Wednesday released a statement from Air Combat Command out of Langley Air Force Base stating: â€œLt. Col. Fehrenbach is being processed for administrative separation for homosexual conduct, as defined by Air Force instructions implementing federal law, specifically, 10 USC 654. This law requires the Department of Defense, and in turn the Department of the Air Force, to separate from the armed forces members who engage in or attempt to engage in homosexual acts.â€
Fehrenbach said a civilian acquaintance in Boise told officials at his base last May that Fehrenbach is gay. That launched an Air Force investigation that lasted more than three months.
Initially, Fehrenbach planned to take â€œa quick, quiet and honorable dischargeâ€ but as the months went on, â€œit was sort of eating away at me this wasnâ€™t right. The law wasnâ€™t right and it was unconstitutional.â€
He thought that in his unique position as an officer with a distinguished career, he might be able to â€œeffect change and help thousands of people who have been unjustly discharged.â€
Fehrenbach, just two years away from a 20-year retirement, stands to lose the $46,000 a year in retirement benefits, plus medical benefits, he would receive for the rest of his life.
Under the honorable discharge he would receive $80,000 in separation pay.
Fehrenbach said his discharge hearing was delayed until this year because of President Barack Obamaâ€™s commitment during the 2008 presidential campaign to move to end the Donâ€™t Ask, Donâ€™t Tell policy.
Fehrenbach still holds out hope the policy will be changed under the new administration.
Fehrenbach expects to receive a final answer on his case by September, based on how long past cases have taken.
The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which is providing free legal representation to him, has posted a petition on its Web site hoping to get the Air Force to allow Fehrenbach to continue serving. The petition notice, to be sent to the Air Force secretary, points out the military spent $25 million in taxpayer dollars to train him and that Fehrenbach was hand-picked to be part of a team to protect the Washington, D.C. airspace after 9/11.
â€œOur country cannot afford to lose Lt. Col. Fehrenbach, especially when we are waging two wars,â€ the notice states.
Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach is added to the ever-growing list of servicemembers fired for the crime of being gay. The list also includes:
President Obama, you have the distinct authority to stop firing honorable men and women until Congress can get this policy repealed, and yet you do nothing. Next time a soldier is sent home in a pine box, remember: You did this.