To Mark 10th Anniversary of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Repeal, Spanberger Shares Experience of Central Virginia Veteran on Floor of U.S. House of Representatives

Stephanie Merlo — A Henrico County Resident — Agreed to have the Congresswoman Read an Account of Her Experiences on the 10th Anniversary of the Discriminatory Policy’s Repeal

**VIDEO: Spanberger Shares Story of Central Virginia Veteran, Calls for Continued Protections for All U.S. Servicemembers **

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger last night shared the personal story of a Central Virginia veteran to highlight the 10th anniversary of the repeal of the U.S. Department of Defense’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

On the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, Spanberger read the firsthand account of Stephanie Merlo, a U.S. Army veteran who faced tremendous challenges in the U.S. military because of her sexual orientation. Merlo is a resident of Henrico County in Virginia’s Seventh District.

“Stephanie’s story is emblematic of the struggles, the hardships, and the eventual triumphs of so many who served in our Armed Forces before the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.’ During that time, they showed tremendous courage, and they served our country with the utmost honor and valor,” said Spanberger. “Our military is stronger because of the repeal. Our nation is better protected because of the protections afforded to those who put on the uniform. We have the opportunity to reflect on the importance of this decision on its 10th anniversary.”

Click here to watch her remarks, and a full transcript of her remarks is below.

Madame Speaker, I rise tonight to remember — and celebrate — the 10-year anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”

The repeal of this policy allowed thousands of American servicemembers to live — and serve — without fear. Finally, brave Americans were able to defend their country — our country — without worrying about both the stigma or the punishment that they could face because of whom they loved.

This decision — the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” — impacted many of my constituents in Virginia’s Seventh District — including Stephanie Merlo, an Army veteran. And with her permission, I am honored to read her story tonight on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Stephanie begins by explaining that:

A year after 9/11 happened, I enlisted as an active-duty service member in the Army.

My mom cried, my brother was proud — and I was honestly excited and scared both at the same time.

Was I scared of deploying? Sure, a little. Was I afraid of failing? Of course.

But my overall fear — that which consumed me beyond the point of depression — was the fear of being “ousted” and discharged for being a lesbian. In February of 2004, that fear showed its face — and I was backed into a corner with deciding how I wanted to proceed with my military career.

How many servicemembers had this fear? How many brave soldiers served honorably, but with a secret — a secret that they knew could end their career in the military, their career of service to our nation.

And Stephanie had two secrets — her sexuality, a secret she kept to protect her military career — and a secret regarding the sexual assault she suffered while in the Army. You see, reporting it could mean also revealing the secret of her sexuality. Stephanie couldn’t seek justice as a victim, because seeking justice would mean she could potentially bring an end to her career. She could potentially be identified as gay in the military.

And Stephanie was faced with this horrible choice — this horrible reality. All the while, her intention had been to bravely serve our nation, as so many LGBTQ Americans have. And I am proud to share this story, because Stephanie reflects on the fact that had “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” not been in place, perhaps a bit of her story would have gone differently. She says that she never regretted her decision to join the Army, but she still lives with the regret of not allowing herself to live her truth.

And Stephanie’s story is emblematic of the struggles, the hardships, and most importantly the triumphs of so many who served in our Armed Forces before the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” During that time, members of our military showed tremendous courage, selflessness — they served our country with the utmost honor and valor. And they put their service to country above even living their own truth.

But our military is stronger because of the repeal. Our military has always been strong because of brave servicemembers — brave soldiers like Stephanie. And our nation is better because it has been protected by people like Stephanie and so many of the stories we’ve heard today. And our nation is better protected because of the protections afforded to those who put on the uniform.

Tonight, we have the opportunity to reflect on the importance of this decision on the 10th anniversary of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

For thousands of servicemembers and veterans like Stephanie, this decision was long overdue. May we always look to defend and support those who are willing to serve our country, sacrifice on behalf of our fellow Americans, and build a stronger nation. I am grateful to every LGBTQ servicemember who has served past or present, I thank them for their sacrifice to our country, and I am so grateful that as they serve today they can do it celebrating their full selves.

BACKGROUND

Monday, September 20, 2021 marked the 10-year anniversary of the official repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. However, because of the discharge status they received, LGBTQ veterans who separated from the military during the years “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was in effect have not been able to receive the benefits and care they’ve earned from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

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