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Gay alumni group to present awards

Laura McCrystal | Friday, October 1, 2010

Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach, a 1991 Notre Dame graduate and decorated Air Force pilot, is currently fighting for his rights under the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.


The Gay and Lesbian Alumni of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s College (GALA) will give Fehrenbach its distinguished alumni award this weekend in South Bend. Liam Dacey, GALA chair and 2004 Notre Dame graduate, said GALA created the distinguished alumni award this year to honor Notre Dame graduates who are leaders for the gay community.


The group, which is not officially associated with the University, will present the award to Fehrenbach at a Saturday event.


“We thought of a new award this year as well to go along with the Tom Dooley Award,” Dacey said. “Here’s somebody who’s a war hero, who graduated from Notre Dame.”


Fehrenbach graduated from Notre Dame’s Air Force ROTC. During his 19 years in the Air Force, he was deployed six times and earned nine air medals, one of which was awarded for heroism.


In August, Fehrenbach filed a complaint and requested a temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court because he believed he would be discharged from the Air Force as a result of investigations under the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Resulting negotiations reached a stipulation agreement, which Fehrenbach said requires the Air Force to notify a judge of an intention to discharge him.


The Air Force began to investigate Fehrenbach’s conduct under “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2008, after a civilian accused Fehrenbach of sexual assault.

In order to clear his name of the allegation, Fehrenbach said he admitted to conduct that violated “don’t ask, don’t tell.”


“I only made those statements to clear my name,” he said. “The other option was to lie and that wasn’t an option.”


Fehrenbach has never publicly said he is gay, although the law allows the military to investigate based on either a statement or conduct.


Fehrenbach’s case, which he said would not reach a trial for 18 to 24 months, contains arguments both for his personal circumstance and against “don’t ask, don’t tell” as a whole.


“Actually, my case … is an as-apply challenge,” he said. “But we also have constitutional arguments as well, as declaring it unconstitutional across the board.”


Fehrenbach’s legal team is arguing that his discharge would cause him irreparable harm.


Their argument also challenges the Air Force’s ability to prove that Fehrenbach’s presence in a military unit creates an “unacceptable risk,” which the policy, passed in 1993, states is a result of having members of the military “who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts.”


Fehrenbach will be eligible to retire from the Air Force in September 2011, but if he is discharged he will not earn retirement benefits.


He said he entered the Air Force’s ROTC program as a freshman because the Air Force would pay for his education and fulfill his dream of attending Notre Dame.


“I was probably just like any young, Catholic kid growing up — you watch Notre Dame football,” Fehrenbach said. “I had always wanted to go there.”


The summer between his freshman and sophomore years at Notre Dame, Fehrenbach said he considered leaving the ROTC program and finding another means of paying tuition. But a speech by Sen. John McCain at the Republican National Convention about his own experience in the military and as a prisoner of war changed his opinion.


“That speech just changed my life,” he said. “From that moment on I just felt this overwhelming commitment to serve my country.”


Fehrenbach said he decided to commit not only the minimum four years of service in the Air Force required by ROTC, but his entire career. During his senior year, he was corps commander of the University’s Air Force ROTC and was ranked as a cadet colonel, the highest rank in the ROTC program.


He worked as an information management officer after his graduation from Notre Dame before going to flight school to become a fighter pilot. Since that time, he has flown 88 combat missions in Iraq, Kosovo and Afghanistan during his six deployments.


When he was notified of the Air Force’s investigation in 2008, Fehrenbach said he found another job and prepared to leave the military. He decided, however, to argue his case because he said he realized he could form a strong argument.


“I never did this for me … my goal was always to help others,” Fehrenbach said. “So I’ll do whatever it takes, whether it’s legal, whether it’s public opinion, whether it’s political. I’ll do whatever it takes to see [‘don’t ask, don’t tell’] repealed.”


Fehrenbach said many legal experts have told him his case has the potential to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. The precedent set by Maj. Margaret Witt’s case, in which a U.S. District Court ordered Witt’s reinstatement into the Air Force Sept. 24 after a discharge based on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” will help his argument, he said. He became friends with Witt because their cases are intertwined, and was present for the decision in her case last week.


Fehrenbach said Witt inspired him to pursue legal action in his own situation. In addition, he has received encouragement from many members of the Notre Dame community.


When he began to look for a lawyer, several legal firms contacted him with an interest in his case. He chose M. Andrew Woodmansee, who earned both his bachelor’s and law degrees from Notre Dame, in part due to his ties to the University.


“One of the things I liked about that was I think I know and understand where Notre Dame people come from and what their values are,” Fehrenbach said. “So that part of it was a factor since I sort of knew the type of man he was.”


Fehrenbach also said many of his friends from Notre Dame have contacted him to express their support.


“I found that the friends I met there, even if you don’t see them for five years, it just picks up again. … Those friends are always your friends no matter what happens,” he said. “Gosh, I think I’ve heard from at least half my class from Air Force ROTC.”


Fehrenbach said he met Dacey and learned more about GALA in March at an event for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit group representing gays in the military, which is serving as co-counsel in his case. He said he looks forward to returning to South Bend this weekend for the GALA event because it has been a year since he was last on campus.


“I don’t feel deserving, but I’m humbled, I’m honored,” Fehrenbach said about receiving GALA’s first distinguished alumni award.


Fehrenbach will also participate in a panel discussion Saturday at the Notre Dame Law School about “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He said he hopes it will provide a better understanding of this military policy.


“I think not just Notre Dame students, but the public in general doesn’t have a full understanding of what this law is and how it is in practice,” Fehrenbach said. “In other words, I guess if you see something wrong, you should take every opportunity you’re given to do something about it.”