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An Army colonel retiring April 30 after 26 years of service said the nine years he spent living with the possibility of separation for admitting he was gay was something that he "wouldn't wish … on anybody."
"It was a miserable experience," said Col. Gary Espinas, whose final military assignment is as an instructor at the prestigious Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, Calif. In retirement, Espinas will be director of chapter and membership services for OutServe-SLDN, a newly created position in the new joint organization that includes the division that gave him legal support when he faced the possible end of his career in 2003.
Espinas, a career foreign area officer and Russian specialist, was a major at the time, assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, when a State Department security officer questioned him about his list of local contacts, which included only men.
"I had a wide network of Russian friends," Espinas said. "All of the contacts were men."
The embassy security officer asked a direct question about whether Espinas was gay. "I knew lying was not a good option," he said. "I responded I was, in fact, gay."
Espinas was informed he was under investigation, and he returned to the U.S. to spend 3½ months in a mostly make-work assignment while waiting for word on his fate. He spoke with an Army lawyer and also contacted the Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund seeking help. He was told his next move would depend on the outcome of the ongoing investigation.
Eventually, hearing nothing about his imminent removal from the Army, Espinas said his assignment officer sent him for training in preparation for a posting in London. One day before graduation from that course, he was notified he would not be sent to London, "and I was told not to show up for graduation."
In limbo again, Espinas said he spent about four months at home waiting for word. Eventually, the Army found another job for him in an installation support office.
When he made the promotion list for lieutenant colonel, Espinas said he was shocked to the point that he thought it might be a mistake. But he realized that he just might be able to serve the 20 years needed to qualify for retirement.
When he was picked to attend the Army War College, he finally started to think he was in the clear.
"It was a painful ordeal," he said. Until 2011's full repeal of the military's ban on openly gay service members, he thought he still might be forced to leave.
He never received any word about the status of the investigation.
Between 1994, when the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was established, and 2011 when the ban was repealed, about 13,000 people were separated from the service for homosexuality.
West Point graduate and former Army officer Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, said Espinas will bring "a unique perspective" to his future job with the organization.
"He served under the discriminatory ‘don't ask, don't tell' law, fought back against efforts to discharge him, and went on to serve with dignity and integrity following the law's repeal," said Robinson, a transgender veteran who lived as a man when serving in the Army. "He will be able to relate to our members very effectively."