Ex-ROTC cadet may be new face of 'don't ask, don't tell'

The (Raleigh) News & ObserverMay 21, 2010 

CHAPEL HILL — Though she has long wanted to be an Army doctor, Sara Isaacson says she also wants to live an honest life. So on Jan. 25, the UNC-Chapel Hill ROTC cadet handed her commander a written statement revealing that she is a lesbian.

Doing so ended her military career and will likely cost her more than $79,000. That's what she owes the federal government, which was paying for her UNC-CH schooling — at out-of-state rates — while the Wisconsin native went through her military training.

"I've dreamed since I was 13 of a career as a military officer," Isaacson said this week. "But I knew I wouldn't be OK with myself if I had to lie every day."

Since outing herself, the 21-year-old has become a fresh face in the national movement that opposes the "don't ask, don't tell" law, which mandates the dismissal of openly gay, lesbian or bisexual members of the military. Isaacson has been to Washington twice to lobby members of Congress, and a national group that provides legal counsel to service members is using her story to condemn the law. Their cause is gathering steam. President Barack Obama has called for its repeal, and high-ranking members of the military have backed him.

Meanwhile, Isaacson needs a new life plan. The old one, which started with ROTC and included medical school and a career in the Army, is gone.

Isaacson realized last fall that she is a lesbian. There was no moment of epiphany, just a slow light turning on to finally provide her some clarity. She was in her seventh semester at UNC-CH, a senior enjoying her ROTC leadership role. If she had stayed quiet, she would have graduated this year and been commissioned — an ambition she has held since hearing stories from her grandfather, an Army doctor in post-World War II Okinawa, Japan.

Although the don't ask, don't tell rule prohibits the military from asking service members about their sexual preferences, it also mandates that gays not make their orientation public. Isaacson said the law would have forced her to evade questions or situations or even to lie about them. For example, she couldn't list a partner as next of kin on official documentation, she said.

Although Isaacson believed she was straight until last year, she said she was a vocal supporter of gay rights. In high school in suburban Milwaukee, she was involved in the distribution of a controversial "Heterosexual Questionnaire." It asked students questions like "When did you decide you were a heterosexual?" according to a local news report at the time.

Drawn by a strong undergraduate sciences program, Isaacson chose UNC-CH over the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Northwestern University. She was among the top five students in a high school class of 215, and she first came to UNC-CH on an academic scholarship that was eventually replaced by the federal funds.

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