Freshman Todd Belok has wanted to be a Naval officer since his early teens.
“I want to be an officer because I feel that it shows character,” Belok said. “You are paying back your country.”
But as he found out this December after joining GW’s Navy ROTC program, he may never accomplish his goal – now that the Navy knows he is gay.
Before he arrived in Foggy Bottom last fall, he enrolled in the ROTC program and arrived early to attend a pre-term training session in Quantico, Va. But after two of his fellow NROTC members saw him kiss another male at a party, Belok was officially dismissed from the program in December, according to a disciplinary report provided to The Hatchet.
Despite a University policy against discrimination, the NROTC program dismissed Belok for homosexual behavior – forbidden for active members by the federal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy – after a two-month review.
In the final report, Capt. Brian Gawne wrote that it was a difficult decision for the board to dismiss Belok, who was already a high-achieving member of NROTC.
“While this unit could easily avoid potential scrutiny, publicity and inquiry if I simply overruled the board and recommended retention, such an act would be purely self-serving and neglectful of my responsibility to uphold the policies instituted by our civilian leadership,” Gawne wrote. “I recommend [Midshipman] Belok be dismissed from The George Washington University NROTC on the basis of homosexuality in accordance with [NROTC policy].”
The law mandating the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was passed by Congress during the Clinton administration to protect service members living in close quarters from uncomfortable situations. While the policy does not ban homosexuals from joining the military, it does ban all “homosexual conduct,” according to the Department of Defense Policy on Homosexual Conduct. More than 11,000 service members have been dismissed from the military as a result of this policy since 1993, according to The New York Times.
The University’s policy, however, states any group using its trademarks will not “discriminate against any persons or groups based on age, ancestry, belief, color, creed, disability, national origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, veteran status or other illegal basis, or in any other way that would be a violation of University antidiscrimination policies.”
University spokeswoman Tracy Schario said, although the policies clash, the University supports and has upheld the federal law.
“These are very, very sensitive, delicate issues,” Schario said. “Unfortunately the military can discriminate based on sexual orientation.”
Federal law says that any federal money a university receives, for anything from financial aid to research grants, can be withdrawn if the school does not comply with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or denies ROTC the right to recruit on campus.
‘You are supposed to say something’
On September 13, 2008, Belok attended a party at Beta Theta Pi, a fraternity which he later pledged, when two other midshipmen [MIDN], Dave Perry and Squad Leader Nick Trimis, said they saw Belok kiss another male on the lips.
“In the basement of Beta Theta Pi, MIDN Belok introduced me to another male, who he referred to as his ‘special friend,’ ” Trimis wrote in the Performance Review Board report. “Within five minutes of this introduction, I witnessed MIDN Belok kissing this individual on the lips. I decided I needed to leave after this encounter.”
Perry and Trimis said they consulted with each other and other midshipmen who witnessed the event to decide the appropriate course of action.
“We wanted to keep it as low-profile as possible,” said Perry, a freshman, in an interview. “We wanted to protect his privacy, that’s why we went past the students.”
Bypassing the standard chain of command within the unit, Perry and Trimis went directly to Lt. Kathleen Meeuf, an assistant professor of naval science. Meeuf began the dismissal process by informing her superiors of the infraction.
Both Trimis and Perry said they felt they were obligated to inform their superiors.
“It was drilled into me for a good 13 weeks that if someone does something wrong you are supposed to say something,” said Trimis, who enlisted in the Marines before coming to GW to finish his education. “There are certain rules in the military and when you tell, this is the way it plays out, but it is unfortunate.”
Gawne, who oversees the NROTC program at GW and made the recommendation to dismiss Belok, declined to comment on Belok’s case specifically. NROTC students directly reporting on their peers in the program is rare, and Gawne said that when it happens, it is a difficult situation for everyone involved.
“We expect students to do the right thing,” Gawne said. “If a student is breaking regulations, well, that is one of the hardest things.”
Perry said it was a difficult decision to report Belok but that in the end, he felt it was justified.
“I am not homophobic, I do not dislike gays,” Perry said. “It was just an uncomfortable situation for other midshipmen.”
Belok said the unit gave him two options following the report.
“They told me I could drop out or do a Performance Review Board, a PRB, which is a nonjudicial review board,” Belok said. “I decided to do the PRB so I could try to fight it.”
While Belok was going through the dismissal process, which took more than two months, he said members of the units expressed their disappointment that he was forced to leave the unit.
“Todd was one of the most qualified midshipmen in the year,” said one midshipman who wished to remain anonymous. “He is completely motivated in finding some way to serve this nation.”
The Hatchet contacted other members of NROTC but they declined to comment, saying the unit asked them not to.
Fighting to serve
Belok does not deny he is a homosexual, nor does he deny he broke the federal law by “telling” his fellow midshipmen he was gay. He said he hopes the policy will change so he can still serve in the Navy as an officer, a dream he had harbored since he was a young teenager.
“My grandfather served in World War II and I have known I wanted to serve since early high school,” Belok said. “I think everyone owes it to the country you grew up in to give back.”
Belok is unable to rejoin any NROTC units and most likely will not be accepted into any Officer Training Schools if he applied after graduation because officials will have access to his records and the file that details his dismissal from GW’s NROTC program.
Perry said he now regrets reporting Belok.
“I was hoping he would just leave so he could go to OTS later,” Perry said. “I wish I had just let it go so Belok would not have gotten kicked out.”
Belok said he received advice from lawyers at the Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network but has decided against legal action. Instead, Belok is now working with the SLDN to petition Congress and the Obama administration to change the law that got him expelled. He hopes his efforts will allow himself and other gay members to serve.
“I definitely still will be in the Navy,” Belok said. “It is just a matter of when the policy changes.” n
Sarah Scire contributed to this report.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: (February 17, 2009)
The Hatchet misspelled the name of Capt. Brian Gawne.