by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Last week, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN) Executive Director Aubrey Sarvis announced that he would leave the organization this year. He told Seattle Gay News the position was 'the most important work I've done in my professional career.'
Sarvis, former chief counsel for the Senate Commerce Committee and later executive vice president of Verizon Communications, joined SLDN as its executive director in October 2007. He is also a member of the SLDN Board of Directors.
As the head of the legal advocacy organization, Sarvis hoped to make a difference. 'My work with SLDN has been extraordinarily satisfying,' he said. 'Obviously, with repeal of DADT, it has been a remarkable journey. Working with the Obama administration and other key allies to make sure the repeal happened was rewarding. It was a big and important fight. At the end of the day, we were able to pull it together.'
But Sarvis' journey didn't begin - and won't end - with DADT. Originally from South Carolina, he enlisted in the Army immediately after high school. He served for more than three years, including 13 months as a member of the 7th Infantry Division on the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea. He received his BA and JD law degrees from American University. He also studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, Harvard Business School, and Columbia University's Graduate School of Business.
From 1977 to 1983, Sarvis served as staff director and chief counsel to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
In 1984, he joined Bell Atlantic, which later merged with GTE to form what is now Verizon Communications. At the time the merger was completed, Sarvis was executive vice president for public policy and legislative operations. After 14 years at Bell Atlantic, he formed his own public policy consulting firm in Washington in 1998. He remained there until joining SLDN in 2007.
During his tenure at SLDN, Sarvis says he recognized the power of each Gay and Lesbian servicemember's story of how they were affected by DADT.
'What we got right was when we started pushing out more and more faces and stories of those who were being harmed by the law,' he said. 'We began to underscore that many of these individuals were highly decorated combat veterans fighting for us and our country. All too often, they served overseas in combat operations, and when they came home they would be fired because of their sexual orientation.'
Sarvis says they also began to show lawmakers, Pentagon officials, and the president that there was great support among the American people to repeal DADT.
SLDN is a non-partisan, non-profit, legal services, watchdog, and policy organization dedicated to bringing about full LGBT equality to America's military and ending all forms of discrimination and harassment of military personnel on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Each day, SLDN provides free and direct legal assistance to service members and veterans affected by the repealed 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' law and the prior regulatory ban on open service, as well as those currently serving who may experience harassment or discrimination. Since 1993, their in-house legal team has responded to more than 11,000 requests for assistance.
There are many people who might think that the repeal of DADT took too long to happen. Sarvis says that, while the troops who were directly in the line of fire over the issue may have felt the brunt of the law, it was - in terms of repealing a federal law - a rather swift win.
'Shortly after Clinton was elected, in '93 we get DADT out of a bargain with the Pentagon,' he recalls. 'They tried to sell it that way to the American people. That it was a bargain and that it worked so Gays and Lesbians could serve. During those eight years there was no chance to getting DADT changed or repealed.'
'Along came President Bush who said it [DADT] is working and he is there for eight years,' continued Sarvis. 'Sixteen years later and thousands of servicemembers are being fired, Obama was the first realistic opportunity in years - three commanders in chief later - and he was able to end DADT during his first Congress. That is remarkable.'
'In the scheme of things, it was very long and painful for servicemembers being fired and investigated, but in terms of changing a federal law under a president, it was a short time,' he said.
Although Sarvis is leaving the organization, he is quick to point out that 'SLDN is not going away.'
'We still need to provide day-to-day, one-on-one legal service,' he said.
Currently, SLDN has filed landmark litigation suing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki on behalf of current and former service members seeking equal recognition, benefits, and family support for equal sacrifice and service in the U.S. Armed Forces. The plaintiffs, each legally married, want the armed services to recognize their families, and they seek the same family support and benefits for their same-sex spouses that the services and Department of Veterans Affairs provide to opposite-sex spouses.
The case, filed in the District of Massachusetts, challenges the constitutionality of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), as well as provisions in Title 10, Title 32, and Title 38 of the U.S. Code, which preclude the military from providing same-sex married couples with the same benefits and family support as their straight, married peers.
Currently, federal law requires the military to ignore these marriages and, therefore, prevents it from providing vitally needed benefits to these legally married spouses, including housing, health care, surviving spouse benefits, the issuance of military identification cards, and morale, welfare, and recreational programs.
These inequities were recently spotlighted when Chief Warrant Officer 2 Charlie Morgan of the New Hampshire National Guard - a plaintiff in this case - was forced to seek intervention from elected officials and the Pentagon in order for her spouse, a part-time special education teacher, to be permitted to attend a yellow-ribbon reintegration ceremony following Morgan's return from a deployment to Kuwait.
'This case is about one thing, plain and simple: It's about justice for Gay and Lesbian service members and their families in our armed forces rendering the same military service, making the same sacrifices, and taking the same risks to keep our nation secure at home and abroad,' said Sarvis. 'These couples are in long-term, committed, and legally recognized marriages, and the military should not be forced to turn its back on them because the federal government refuses to recognize their families.'
'We are not advocating any special treatment for the families of Gay and Lesbian service members or veterans, but we want to underscore that all military families should be treated the same when it comes to recognition, benefits and family support,' he said.
Although he is leaving SLDN, Sarvis tells Seattle Gay News that he is not leaving LGBT servicemembers and veterans. His work will continue in a different capacity.
'I'm looking at ways to help Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are returning home to school or the job market,' he concluded. 'We are going to have a large number of young veterans coming into the job market at a time of a high level of unemployment and I want to be there to help them.'
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