Dismissed ROTC member says she's happy, changed

Staff WriterDecember 22, 2010 

When President Obama signs legislation this morning repealing the military's ban on openly gay service members, Sara Isaacson will get her old life back.

Thing is, she doesn't want it. Instead, the once-and-future UNC-Chapel Hill student has a new calling - her longtime desire to be an Army doctor has been trumped by a new thirst for activism.

Isaacson, 22, was dismissed from the ROTC program at UNC-CH this year after telling her supervisor she is a lesbian. After that, she was swept into the national movement to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. She told her story over and over, lending a fresh face to the public debate.

With the law's repeal, she hopes to rejoin ROTC. But medical school is no longer her long-term goal.

"This last year has really led me to re-evaluate my life and career plans," she said Tuesday night. "It's my responsibility to speak out."

Today, she'll be celebrating. She has wrangled an invitation to today's bill-signing ceremony, a chance to witness history.

"It is a huge victory," Isaacson said. "It's a huge step towards full equality."

Isaacson knew she'd be kicked out of ROTC in January when she came out to her commander.

Although the "don't ask, don't tell" rule prohibits the military from asking service members about their sexual preferences, it also mandates that gays not make their orientation public. Isaacson didn't want to be forced to evade questions or situations or to lie about them. For example, she couldn't list a partner as next of kin on official documentation.

Isaacson's life won't immediately change with today's signing. There is still a certification process and a 60-day review period mandated by the legislation. Isaacson isn't sure how the re-enlistment process will go. She has received a boost from U.S. Rep. David Price, the North Carolina Democrat pushing for her reinstatement.

"Sara's case vividly demonstrates why 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' was both unfair and detrimental to our military," Price said Tuesday in a news release.

Isaacson, who is from Wisconsin, left UNC-CH last semester just five courses shy of graduation. She plans to start back part time in the spring and hopes to graduate in May 2012 and be commissioned then.

She went to UNC-CH on an academic scholarship that was later replaced by federal funds. When she was dismissed by the military, she was told to pay back the more than $79,000 in out-of-state tuition she'd received from the federal government. She appealed that directive, which is still pending.

Isaacson said Tuesday that she doesn't yet know whether that debt will be wiped out if she re-enlists and fulfills her military commitment.

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4563