The power of not giving up

We are all familiar with the famous quote attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, “Never, never, never give up.” Those sage words of advice have served many people well over the years, but for me, I prefer one of Churchill’s similar, but lesser known quotes:

“Never give up on something that you can’t go a day without thinking about.”

I learned the real value in living by those words last year when I got something most people never get – a second chance at a life that was taken away from.

I got a little story for you Ags … 

Most people around me know the reason I became involved in politics and GLBT activism was because I was discharged under the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy on December 20, 2000.  That experience was the first time in my life I had faced institutionalized discrimination and public policy that was designed to harm people.  I set forth on a journey that began with stepping out into the world of activism with one goal in mind: Get DADT repealed.

I fought the good fight, alongside thousands of other men and women who had faced a similar fate and whose careers had been cut short by DADT.  We wrote letters, made calls, walked the halls of Congress, testified in hearings, and protested in the streets.  Finally, eleven years after my own discharge, DADT was repealed.

Although it was a wonderful moment to see all of my hard work finally pay off, it didn’t make my own journey any less painful.  For all those years I thought every single day thinking about what happened and what might have been.  I wondered what my life would have been like had I not been discharged.  Sure, I have a great life with a wonderful husband, a good career, and two rambunctious beagles, but I still wondered.  Along the way I had convinced myself that I had moved on, that even if DADT was repealed I would never consider going back.  That is, until the Air Force made a big mistake that affected me and a couple thousand other people.

Captain Freeman

In August 2013 I received a memorandum from the Air Reserve Personnel Center (ARPC) informing me that I was eligible to apply for the January 2014 major selection board.  I had occasionally received mail from the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) because I had been on the books receiving a salary as an active duty airman and later as a cadet in the Inactive Ready reserve (IRR), but this was different, so I started making phone calls.

When an officer is up for promotion, an Officer Preselection Brief is generated.  It is a document that shows all of the basic information about the officer’s current status, such as where he is assigned, dates or rank, dates of status, etc.  My OPB said I was captain up for promotion to major.  What immediately jumped out from the page was the date of status – seven days after the repeal of DADT.  The people I began talking to at ARPC thought it was possible I had been retroactively reinstated because as far as they could tell, everything in my status was genuine.

I spoke to six people who guaranteed me it was real, and everything added up – my commissioning date was what it would have been, and my promotions to first lieutenant and captain were what they should have been.  Nonetheless, I still wasn’t convinced.  I ended up speaking to a friend who is on active duty who was Corps Commander our senior year at Texas A&M, and he suggested I contact DFAS.  Pure genius!  If anyone knows what’s going on it’s the people who handle the money, right?

DFAS was perplexed.  The gentleman at DFAS told me he had never seen anything like my records.  Everything was retroactive with a status date seven days after the DADT repeal.  What was more fun was that I had apparently been missing reserve drills and owed DFAS about $3,800 in life insurance payments that would have been taken out of my drill pay.  Again, everything looked real, and the hypothesis was that I had been retroactively reinstated following repeal of DADT.

As far as the Air Force was concerned, I was a captain in the Reserves.  Wow.

At that point we began looking at what was going to be involved in getting me the appropriate training and assignment to get me where I needed to be to start drilling with the Reserves.  As much as it was a dream come true, and as excited as I was, there was still a doubt that lingered in the back of my mind, so I asked the big questions, “What happens if I go spend a thousand dollars on uniforms and get rolling with training, then someone comes along and says this was all some paperwork error?  Have I really been reinstated?”

Finally, someone at ARPC considered what the practical ramifications of reinstatement would be.  Since I had been enrolled in Air Force ROTC at the time of my discharge, being reinstated would mean I would not return to the Reserves, but rather to ROTC, and active component.  Did that mean I had an active duty commitment remaining?  Had I bee AWOL for two years?  ARPC turned everything over to the active Air Force Personnel Center (AFPC) at Randolph Air Force Base for research and a final answer to my questions.

Yes, it was all a paperwork error surrounded by numerous amazing coincidences.  Someone at ARPC had failed to properly process discharges for a little more than 2,000 people, resulting in all of them receiving assorted personnel paperwork like I did, and incurring debts with DFAS for drills they “missed.”  The answer to my questions was that I could be prosecuted for entering service under false pretenses.  It felt like I had been discharged all over again.

Is there a way?

I figured since I had someone on the phone, I would ask if there was a way I could return to service.  I got bounced all over hell and back and got told no, yes, and maybe by all sorts of people, but it wasn’t until a friend asked me to send him copies of the erroneous paperwork, which he forwarded to the Acting Secretary of the Air Force, Eric Fanning.  He asked Secretary Fanning if it was possible to consider the question of how I could return to service.

Somewhere along the way, I ended up speaking to the chief of disenrollments at AFPC.  For those who are not familiar with Air Force processes, any time someone leaves an officer commissioning program without commissioning, they have to get processed through the disenrollments office at AFPC.  She gave me an interesting suggestion – apply to have my discharge vacated in its entirety.  Of course she made no guarantees it was possible, but mentioned that others had been successful in the past.

Two parallel tracks began to take shape at that point.  On September 25, 2013 I submitted an application to the Board for Correction of Military Records (BCMR) to have my discharge vacated and submitted a separate package to Secretary Fanning formally requesting reinstatement for commissioning eligibility.

What makes my particular case so unique is that normally when a cadet is disenrolled from ROTC, that’s it – they are done.  Following my discharge, I took a short break from being a cadet, but ultimately returned to and remained in the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets all the way through Final Review.  I even attended the commissioning ceremony at which I would have been commissioned.  A strong argument could be made that I had completed most, if not all, the requirements that would have been set forth had I not been discharged.

A bridge too far

By December we had gone back and forth on requirements, standards, possibilities, and complications.  I had spoken to LtGen John Van Alstyne, my commandant when I was in the Corps, and he asked me to consider the entire picture when it came to what my desires were, what the realities of my situation were, and what the needs of the force are.  At what point did it become a bridge too far?

First, I was 37 and would require an age waiver based on prior service.  Secondly, my undergraduate grades suffered as a result of harassment I faced as an openly gay cadet in the Corps.  Finally, the armed forces have been drawing down because of the sequester and wrapping up of combat operations in the Middle East.  My responsibility as someone who genuinely cares about the mission and needs of the force was to accept the fact that I was simply asking too much of the Air Force to place my needs and desires about its own.  On December 5, 2013 decided to abandon my efforts to be reinstated and thank the Secretary and his staff for their time.

Cleared for takeoff

I don’t know what happened at the Pentagon in the four days that followed my decision to hang it up, but I got an email from a member of Secretary Fanning’s staff clearing me to apply for Air Force Officer Training School (OTS) and providing some contacts to help me through the application process.  We were back on.

In mid-December I visited an Air Force recruiting office for the first time since 1996.  The biggest difference was this time I wasn’t nervous or apprehensive.  We went over the basics and I provided all the necessary vital documents to him and he gave me my checklist.  Then I had to weigh in – the part I totally forgot about.  At least I had just lost 70 pounds, but even still, I was just a bit over the limit for my height.

So scratch that whole not being nervous thing – the biggest difference was the last time I went to a recruiter I weighed 125 pounds.  This meant I now have to weigh in every 30 days, and I’ll be damned if that scale in the Army office wasn’t three pounds heavier than my scale at home at my first weigh in.  Still over.  Two pounds.  Dammit.

I spent a month and a half completing a whole mess of paperwork: pre-screening questionnaires, security clearance background paperwork, medical records, enlisted performance reports from active duty, letters of recommendation, and an applicant profile that is a lot like a super resume.  I was blessed to be able to get letters of recommendation from some really amazing people.

One other piece of the process was having to take the Air Force Officers Qualifying Test (AFOQT).  I last took the AFOQT in 1999, so my scores weren’t valid anymore.  I was given nine days’ notice to appear at the Houston Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS) at 5:00 in the morning on a Wednesday.  The AFOQT is a lot like the SAT or GRE, except that it includes sections on basic aviation, reading attitude indicators, rotated blocks, and hidden figures.

Needless to say, I was sweating the AFOQT pretty bad, since it had been almost 15 years since I had last taken it and I had not taken a college math course since 1998.  I knew I would do acceptably well, but had concerns my scores would not be high enough to overcome a GPA that was not as good as the Selection Board would like to see.  I can explain away my GOA all day long in my personal statement, but a good AFOQT scores is a tangible demonstration that I’m not just feeding them an excuse.

I kept up at the gym doing serious cardio for an hour almost every day, continued working on my applicant profile, and waited for my AFOQT scores to come in.  I had to get my scores before I could submit my applicant profile.  A week and a half later I logged onto the AFPC website for my scores and was prepared to be disappointed.

Wow.  I aced the AFOQT.

Indulge me here for moment because I’m going to be immodest and gloat.  For the five percentile scores, I got a 96, 99, 99, 99, and 96, respectively.  Essentially I did better than almost everyone else in the country.  It’s not that I was excited about doing so well – I was excited that I had gotten a little bit of saving grace in this process.  My scores were a shining star in this entire package that tells the Air Force I have what it takes when put up objectively against every other applicant.  For some perspective, AFOQT scores are literally the second thing the Board will see after my name.

Now that all of my paperwork is done and submitted, I have two things left to do: make weight and go to San Antonio for an interview with the recruiting squadron commander.  Nothing can finalized for my application package and the interview cannot be scheduled until I officially make weight.  Thankfully I’m under the maximum for my height, but not by a whole, and I have to weigh in again on Tuesday.

I suppose I have a little bit of breathing room because the actual Selection Board cutoff date has not yet been announced, although it is likely to be in April, so at most, I have another month I could spare trying to make better weight if I have to.  With my luck, I’ll end up retaining five pounds of water or something.  Assuming I make weight and have my interview soon, it all comes down to the wonderful military procedure of hurry up and wait.

The question you’ve been asking since about halfway down the page.

Yes, if I get selected for OTS I will be leaving Houston for some time, but we’re still a ways off from any of all that.  The Board will likely meet in April and release selections in June or July.  Depending on what specialty (job) I get assigned, it could be four months to a year before I get shipped off to Basic Officer Training (BOT).  At the very least, I would have to go to BOT in time to commission before mid-September 2015.

There is no guarantee I will get selected.  I have to compete against all other national applicants, and non-rated selections are running about 15% right now, with non-technical degrees like mine being of lower priority.  I’m not holding my breath, but I sure as Hell am fighting for this as hard as I can.

Even if I don’t get selected, at least I got a second chance.  So if there is something you think about every day, don’t give up on finding a way to put it within reach.  You never know, you might be like me and get that chance 14years down the road.

Better 14 years late than never.

About Noel Freeman

First and foremost, I'm a Fightin' Texas Aggie, but I earn my living as a proud public servant in Houston's Public Works Department. I served in the US Air Force as an intelligence analyst and spent some time with the National Archives and US Congress.
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