Growing up in Johnson City, Tenn., Bleu Copas was inspired by stories from his father's military days. Inspired to serve his country after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Copas enlisted in the Army, and before long, began studying Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in California, after which he began working in military intelligence.
"It is indisputable that the work that my specific job does is one of the most important jobs of the military," said the 26-year-old Copas. "It is very difficult to keep tabs on all the different enemies."
There was just one problem: Copas is gay. His sexuality led to his discharge in December 2005, despite his being one of the military's relatively few Arabic speakers. He's now pursuing a Masters degree in counseling at East Tennessee State University.
The policy against gays serving openly in the military, known as "don't ask, don't tell," was signed into law by President Clinton in 1993. A 2004 study by the Government Accountability Office found that of the 9,488 service members discharged from the military for gay and lesbian conduct, approximately 757 -- or 8 percent -- "held critical occupations," meaning the kinds of jobs for which the Pentagon offers selective reenlistment bonuses. That number included 322 with "skills in an important language such as Arabic, Farsi, or Korean." That GAO report can be read HERE.
While 67 percent of the American people think gays and lesbians should be able to serve openly, according to a study done by the Annenberg Public Policy, 50 percent of those in the military think they should not. The military says the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is needed for unit cohesion.
Copas was well aware of the policy, and said he did just what they require. He said he did not tell anyone at work he was gay, and assumed no one there would ever have reason to ask him about it.
"I was not able to tell anyone, and I had to maintain my privacy and maintain professionalism in the workplace," Copas said.
So how was Copas outed?
Copas said that last year, someone got into his personal e-mail account and sent e-mails indicating he's gay to his commanders, noting that the e-mails belonged to someone in the 82nd Airborne Division's All American Chorus.
"So the leaders of the chorus brought us into the hallway," Copas said, "and asked us, or let us know, 'We know one of you is gay, who is it?'"
Copas didn't admit he was the one, but soon they were all asked about those e-mails.
"[They asked], 'Do I know of anyone who thinks I am homosexual, or do I associate with others who are homosexual, and am I involved in the community theatre?' " Copas said.
The question about community theater came up because of content in the e-mails, he explained.
"There were some questions that I declined to answer, that I didn't think would help in finding the informant," Copas said. "Later, that ended up hurting me."
In a written statement, Copas's commanding officer, Lt Col. James Zellmer said: "When the allegations of Sgt. Copas' homosexual conduct came to my attention, I appointed an impartial officer to conduct an investigation. … The evidence clearly indicated that Sgt. Copas had engaged in homosexual acts and made statements in a public forum indicating a propensity and intent to engage in homosexual acts."
Last December, Copas was notified that he would be honorably discharged because he was gay, and all because of that anonymous e-mailer. He said he still has no idea who it was.
"I have wracked my brains for months, a year now, trying to find out who this is," he said.
Copas said "don't ask, don't tell" may have made sense 11 years ago, but it does not today.
"I think, especially now of all times, the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy hurts the war on terror," he said.
Copas said even though he thinks the military violated its own policy by asking when he wasn't telling, he was discharged will full benefits, so he has no intention to sue. He hopes to be a voice for those in the military who aren't able to serve "honestly," and to tell Congress that the military is ready to begin accepting gays and lesbians to serve openly.