Four years ago, Sara Isaacson had a full-ride ROTC scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a dream of becoming an Army doctor like her grandfather.
Today she may owe nearly $80,000 for the cost of books and out-of-state tuition that the Army paid the university on her behalf.
Ms. Isaacson, who identified as a straight woman when she started college, says she acknowledged to herself last November that she was lesbian. After consulting with trusted friends and advisers on the campus, she revealed her orientation in a formal memorandum to Lt. Col. Monte Yoder, head of the university's Army ROTC program. That put her in violation of Defense Directive 1304.26, better known as Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the 1993 Clinton administration compromise that allows gay people to serve in the military as long as they do not divulge their sexual orientation.
She was notified in March that she was being discharged and told that a recommendation had been made that she repay $79,265.14 to the government.
The chemistry major from Port Washington, Wis., says the policy places people at odds with one the Army's key virtues: "I didn't feel like I could be a good officer if I didn't have integrity."
Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Ms. Isaacson says, forces her and other gay and lesbian cadets to behave dishonestly to themselves and others. "On a college campus, where so much identity development takes place," she says, the policy "puts people in a really difficult position."
Colonel Yoder, who acknowledges that the integrity argument is a strong one, nonetheless maintains that Ms. Isaacson could have saved herself a good deal of money and hassle if she'd simply adhered to the rule. "If you were to serve as a gay person," he says, "nobody's going to ask, and nobody's going to tell."
Ms. Isaacson, however, describes campus ROTC and the larger military as environments where hiding one's sexual orientation is difficult if not impossible. Cadets are expected to bring dates to social events, pictures of spouses and partners are visible on desktops, and service members are obliged to identify their next of kin.
Colonel Yoder responds that while he is married to a woman, no one is allowed to ask him about it. If he showed up at a military ball with a man, he says, no one could ask him about it. "I was very clear with Miss Isaacson about that," he says. "I told her I won't ask."
But Ms. Isaacson, who says she still wishes she could fulfill her scholarship obligation, says that she was unwilling to lie about who she is. "My core beliefs and my values are more important to me than the money," she says.
Recent court decisions over the recovery of tuition costs side with the military, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group that serves people affected by Don't Ask, Don't Tell. "If service members are deemed to be coming out as gay or lesbian 'voluntarily,' they can expect the military to recoup against them on a prorated basis," says Aaron Tax, the organization's legal director.
January 25 was the date that Ms. Isaacson had delivered her letter to Colonel Yoder. Two days later, President Obama made a promise during his State of the Union Address: "This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It's the right thing to do."
That effort continues, although Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates wrote a letter to the chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee two weeks ago asking that the repeal effort be delayed until a Pentagon study on Don't Ask, Don't Tell is completed in December.
Nonetheless, opponents of the policy are hopeful that change could be afoot later this year. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network says that a "delayed implementation" effort to repeal the language of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the new Defense Authorization Bill (S 3280) is within two votes of passage in a vote coming this month in the Senate Armed Services Committee. Repeal advocates are hoping to offer a similar amendment in coming weeks on the House floor.
Ms. Isaacson, who visited Capitol Hill this week to speak to North Carolina's Congressional delegation about overturning the rule, says that while she has been told that her battalion has recommended that she repay the money, Army officials have yet to issue a final decision.
"I wonder," she says, "if some of that is that, with the discussion of the repeal, they don't know what to do with me."