Facing discharge, Air Force pilot fights military's expulsion of gays

Idaho StatesmanAugust 24, 2009 

On April 3, 2003, Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach flew his F-15E toward an Iraqi ambush site about a mile from U.S. Army troops advancing on Baghdad airport.

Fehrenbach faced anti-aircraft fire, surface-to-air missiles and a mechanical problem on his wingman's plane. Still, he destroyed the enemy position and helped clear the way for the Army to take the airport that night. For his heroism, the Notre Dame grad won an Air Medal with a valor device, one of his nine Air Medals.

Five years later, Fehrenbach confronted a crisis in a very different setting. A Boise police detective sat across a conference table questioning him about an alleged crime.

Fehrenbach, stationed at Mountain Home Air Force Base, was in a Catch-22. To clear himself of the claim he'd raped a man, Fehrenbach could tell police his side of the story. But admitting he'd had consensual sex could get him kicked out of the Air Force he loved after 18 years.

Fehrenbach asked Detective Mark Vucinich whether his employer had a right to see his statement. Yes, replied Vucinich. Fehrenbach then told the detective he had sex with Cameron Shaner on May 12, 2008. He'd met Shaner, 30, on a gay Web site and invited him to his southeast Boise home.

Fehrenbach was soon cleared by police and the Ada County prosecutor's office. The Air Force Office of Special Investigations subsequently found no violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. AFOSI concluded that Fehrenbach and Shaner had consensual sex, and that Shaner was an "unreliable source of information."

But the Air Force wasn't done: Fehrenbach's admission he'd had gay sex was a violation of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law. "Because of the criminal allegation, Victor confirmed the fact he was gay," said Emily Hecht, a lawyer for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund. "That's all the Air Force needed. Had his accuser been a woman, he'd have gone back to work with no further issue."

Fehrenbach, 40, was notified in September that he would be discharged, costing him a $46,000 annual pension and the dignity of retiring on his own terms, as his Air Force parents both had. If discharged early, he'll get an $80,000 lump sum.

At first, he planned to go quietly with an honorable discharge. Shaner, angry that there would be no prosecution, wouldn't go away and was pressing the Air Force for a dishonorable discharge.

But the prospect of President Barack Obama fulfilling a campaign promise to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," prompted Fehrenbach to fight. In April, a board of five officers recommended an honorable discharge. Fehrenbach's goal was to continue to serve. With two more years, he'd reach 20 years and qualify for full retirement.

In mid-May, Fehrenbach finally revealed to his family that he was gay. A few days later, on May 19, he appeared on "The Rachel Maddow Show" on MSNBC. Since that night, Fehrenbach has become a symbol of injustice for those who condemn the military's expulsion of gay servicemen and women.

Fehrenbach's discharge is pending. Some 13,000 service members have been pushed out under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and being outed by an unreliable source with an ax to grind has not been a mitigating factor.

Read more at IdahoStatesman.com

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