Fall Out

The military turned Ron Falcon into an officer, a gentleman, and a doctor. When the brass discovered he was gay, they kicked him out and sent him the bill.

0930 hours, 29 September 1998. All the uniforms are pressed, the shoes spit-polished. Three colonels, their temples streaked with gray, sit shoulder to shoulder at the head of the small conference room deep inside the Air Reserve Personnel Center (ARPC) in Denver, Colorado, preparing to pass judgment on one of their own.

Lt. Col. Dartt Demaree sits behind a lectern to their right, acting as legal advisor for today's discharge hearing. To his right, two military attorneys, Maj. Brent Landis and Capt. Carla Peyton Etheredge, are calmly preparing to unveil the government's case against Ronald William Falcon, a third-year resident physician and a captain in the Air Force Reserves who lives in Roseville, Minnesota. For the brass gathered here, the hearing is rather routine--another Social Security number, another box of paper clips.

Falcon's table has been placed front and center. The fit 30-year-old, his reddish hair trimmed above his freckled ears, sits arrow-straight, flanked by the only civilians in the chamber: Kyle White, Falcon's St. Paul-based pro bono attorney, and Phil Duran, a second-year law student from the University of Minnesota.

Carolyn Swiszcz

Before the proceedings get under way, Colonel Demaree explains to those assembled that this is not a court of law, but an administrative discharge board. The rigors of "reasonable doubt" don't apply. The three colonels are simply to weigh the evidence and make a recommendation, which will be reviewed by the Secretary of the Air Force in Washington, D.C. If the results of similar discharge hearings are any gauge, the ruling reached here will with little fanfare be rubber-stamped by the Pentagon.

"Who is Captain Ronald Falcon? What did he do?" Etheredge asks as she stands to deliver the government's opening statement. "You're going to receive some documents showing that he was enlisted from 1986 to 1990. And he was honorably discharged. In 1992 he came back to the air force and he signed a fiscal year '92 Health Profession Scholarship Program contract. And, by that contract, he entered into medical school. In exchange for the air force paying for his medical school education, he was going to serve four years active duty, four years in the Ready Reserve after his graduation. And so he went to Temple Medical School from 1992 to 1996. And the total amount that the air force spent on his education was $84,491.22. After he completed medical school, he got a deferment. And the deferment was strictly for the purpose of his going to a residency. And he went to a civilian residency in Minneapolis in July of '96. Actually, he's still in a residency he's not due to complete until 1999.

"Now let's talk about what he did. On the first of September, 1997, Captain Ronald Falcon wrote a letter. On the basis of that letter, Colonel Humphrey, our commander at the ARPC, appointed an investigating officer, Captain Andy Kirkpatrick, to conduct a homosexual inquiry. In the course of the investigation, the investigating officer found Captain Falcon to be homosexual, and to have made a statement that he is homosexual. And he also found that Captain Falcon has the propensity to engage in homosexual acts. He also concluded that this statement was made voluntarily, and for the purpose of seeking separation [from the military].

"We are asking that you ask the Secretary of the Air Force to discharge Captain Falcon with an honorable characterization discharge. And that the Secretary also order that...we get the benefit of the monies that we've expended. That's basically it, sirs."

Kyle White rises from his seat next to Falcon and smoothes his tie. The attorney realizes his client's chances of remaining in uniform are minuscule (months later White will term the government's case against Falcon a "slam-dunk"). His primary purpose is limited: to convince the panel that Falcon should not be forced to submit to the military's demand for "recoupment"--reimbursement of the $84,000-plus the armed forces paid for his medical-school tuition.

White recounts a simple story--of a gay man, a newly minted doctor, a decorated captain, who much to his dismay discovered in August 1997 that he had been "outed" to the air force, thanks to an anonymous e-mail sent by a vindictive fellow officer (who is also gay and who remains in the army). Days later, fearing that his superiors had opened an investigation into his sexual orientation, Falcon had confirmed that he was a homosexual. Falcon's intent, his attorney asserts, was to avoid a lengthy probe into his private life--to put the matter to rest, abide by his contract, and, he hoped, continue his military service.

Moreover, White tells the tribunal, the military violated its own rules regarding gay service members--the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy instituted in 1994--when it began looking into the allegations after receiving the anonymous e-mail but before his client stepped forward. About that policy, White adds, "We're not here to change it. We're here to see that it's applied equally, both to the air force and to Captain Falcon."

Then White calls his only witness other than Falcon himself. Eli Coleman, the director of the Program in Human Sexuality at the University of Minnesota Medical School who conducted a psychological evaluation of Falcon, testifies via speakerphone. During cross-examination, Coleman insists he that finds Falcon to be utterly sincere in his desire to remain in the air force: "He was devastated by this and wanted desperately to preserve his career in the military, and I think that's what he's fighting for now."

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