On Twitter, follow @pamshouseblend for live coverage (in the above window) with less frequent updates on @Pam_Spaulding as well. The latter will crosspost on Facebook, for Blenders who follow me there. The hashtag is #sldn18.


Kate and I are here at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC to cover the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network’s 18th Annual National. As always, the occasion is held to pay tribute to all LGBT veterans in a night of inspiration and remembrance.

We will be highlighting the the experiences of many veterans who have been impacted by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and hitting home the message that Congress can and should be repealing the law while the Pentagon looks at how to implement open service.

Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-PA) – the first Iraq War veteran elected to Congress – will be the keynote speaker.

Things will start to get under way around 7:30. This post will be used for photos, videos and speeches from the dinner as we get them uploaded.

***

What legislation for DADT has been introduced in Congress? A primer:

The Military Readiness Enhancement Act (H.R. 1283, S. 3065)

On March 3, 2010, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) introduced the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (S. 3065) in the U.S. Senate. Sen. Lieberman is joined by 22 cosponsors — including the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Carl Levin (D-MI).

In the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-PA) is quarterbacking parallel legislation, also known as the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (H.R. 1283). Rep. Murphy is joined by 189 bipartisan cosponsors and counting.

The Military Readiness Enhancement Act would repeal the federal law banning military service by openly lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The bill would replace this ban with new provisions prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in the armed forces. Current regulations regarding the personal conduct of military members would remain unchanged as long as they are written and enforced in a sexual orientation neutral manner. Persons previously discharged on the basis of sexual orientation would be eligible to apply to rejoin the military. The Military Readiness Enhancement Act would not create a right to benefits for same-sex partners or spouses, because under current federal law such benefits would violate the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

* List of Cosponsors of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (H.R. 1283)

* List of Cosponsors of the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (S. 3065)

Photos are being added to this slideshow in real time…

Aubrey Sarvis, E.D. of SLDN’s remarks:

Good evening. . . Each one of you here is a fighter in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” campaign; some of you have fought for years and almost every day.  For many this fight is very personal and painful.  

Because of you there is a bill in the House to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  The leader of that bill, Congressman Patrick Murphy, is sitting with us tonight.  Because you have stayed in this fight we have Senate repeal bill S. Thirty Sixty-Five. Because of you the President has joined our ranks, and Defense Secretary Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen have said to Congress it’s about HOW, not if or whether we ever end the nineteen ninety-three ban.  

My message tonight is brief. Ladies and gentlemen, we are in a political fight.  It has come down to the votes, and we still have a few more votes to get. One side will win, the other side will lose.  I did not sign up to lose and neither did you. We will not surrender to those Pentagon service chiefs who oppose us.  My friends, we must not settle for a tie or a standoff, or a nice pat on the back with the words, “maybe next year.” We must win this year – for the thousands of LGBT service members in the ranks today and for the million gay veterans who have worn our country’s uniform.  All of us enlisted in this campaign to win, and together we will win this long battle – but only together.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin has said full repeal. So did Senator Joe Lieberman who said he would like to see repeal “by the end of the year.” Three weeks ago they made it clear they will add repeal language to the defense bill in committee in May-if the votes are there. I repeat-if we have the votes to win. That brings us back to the stark reality of the vote count, back to what every campaign comes down to.

For the first time in seventeen years, we are within striking distance of winning, but time is not on our side and we are not there yet.  

We have one thing to ask of you tonight: go out and help find one new vote. Leave here resolved to help Senator Levin and Senator Lieberman and Patrick Murphy find one new vote.  Six months ago who would have said we would be so very close-only two or three more votes in the Senate Armed Services Committee and we are on a clear path to victory THIS YEAR.

But let us do our work and finish the job. Join Senator Levin and Senator Lieberman, SLDN, and all our allies in working each senator on that committee, and all the other senators, too.  Let’s leave here resolved to get repeal out of the Senate in May and over to the House of Representatives. Together we will have a winning vote. THIS YEAR – yes, THIS YEAR – we can bury Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell once and for all. We will prevail. But let me repeat: We can not, must not, will not let up now or give any ground to those who want to stop us.

     Let me leave you with this message from Harriett Tubman:

“If you hear the dogs, keep going.

If you see the torches in the woods, keep going.

If they’re shouting after you, keep going.

Don’t ever stop, keep going.”

Finally, on behalf of the SLDN staff, board, and Military Advisory Council, let me thank all service members here tonight, gay and straight, all service members around the world and especially those in mortal danger on the front lines, to all who wear the uniform to protect and keep us safe, we say well done and a heartfelt thank you. I also want to thank all our supporters for their moral and financial help. Without them-without all of you tonight- we could not keep up this good fight.

Thank you.

Video of Winchell Award Winner Victor Ferenbach>

His speech and more are below the fold.Announcement of the Winchell Courage Award presenter by his mother, Pat Kutteles:

Good evening. Wally and I are so proud to be here with you again and to salute your work to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  

This July will mark the eleventh anniversary of our son Barry’s murder at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  Barry was a proud paratrooper and a patriotic American. He was a hero, who believed that America was a nation worth defending. His love for the country he so faithfully served continues to inspire Americans to speak out in the cause of equality. It is appropriate that the Barry Winchell Courage Award goes to an individual who embodies the essence of courage that Barry exemplified throughout his life.  

When we established the Barry Winchell Courage Award with SLDN, Wally and I were hopeful that it would encourage people to stand up, speak out and take some real action to end this deplorable law. We stand here tonight – on the cusp of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  We will win this fight — and that victory will be in great part due to the hard work of SLDN and all of you who are here tonight. But most of all – we will win this fight because of the true leaders like the one we will honor this evening with the Two Thousand Ten Barry Winchell Courage Award.

Air Force Major Margaret Witt embodies this kind of courage. In Two Thousand Nine, Major Witt won a groundbreaking victory in federal court that reinstated her challenge to the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law. After almost twenty years of distinguished service in the U.S. Air Force, Major Witt was discharged in Two Thousand Six after her command discovered she is a lesbian. But because of her courage and commitment to justice, Major Witt has shown why “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” must end.

In helping us present tonight’s Barry Winchell Courage Award is last year’s award recipient, Air Force Major Margaret Witt.  

Margaret Witt:

Thank you so much Pat and Wally.  

I’m so honored to be here today to present this year’s Barry Winchell Courage Award.

I can relate to tonight’s recipient. Both of us shared the same dream when we took the oath nearly twenty years ago.  But then, on the cusp of retirement, third party civilians outed us under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  

     Now, we both want nothing more than to continue serving our country.

We both look forward to the day when LGBT service members are no longer fired simply because of who they are.

And thanks to Pat and Wally, SLDN, and all of you here today, there will be a day when we don our flight suits, step on a plane, and fly together.

Tonight’s award recipient is a decorated American hero, earning nine Air Medals over eighteen years, including one for Heroism. He was hand-picked to protect the Washington, D.C. airspace after Nine Eleven, and he flew combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, targeting the Taliban and Al Qaeda. His outstanding record of decorated service to the country he loves is an inspiration.

Ladies and gentlemen – please join me in presenting the Two Thousand Ten Barry Winchell Courage Award to Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fehrenbach.  

Ferenbach:

First let me say that I am truly humbled, honored, and grateful for this recognition tonight.  

I am especially honored that it was presented by Pat and Wally Kutteles.  I don’t have words to describe what this means to me.  I only hope that I can do honor to Barry’s memory and live up to his legacy.  This fight is for him and the thousands of others who did not have a voice.  Thank you so much!  

Congressman Murphy, thank you – not only for your inspiring words tonight – but more importantly, for your military service and your leadership in Congress.  It’s so important that we have a combat veteran lead this fight, because YOU know first-hand that this is not only about equal rights, but also national security.  Thank you, sir.

Of all the awards  and decorations that I’ve received throughout my career, THIS has the most meaning to me, because it was the most hard-fought…NOT by me, but by the thousands of brave, honorable service members who have came before me, laying the groundwork and giving me the inspiration to speak out.  

No ONE person truly deserves this honor, because no ONE person has earned it alone.  No one has courage ALONE.

I want to thank pioneers like Colonel Margaret Cammermeyer, Commander Zoe Dunning, Sergeant Darren Manzella, and my hero, Major Margaret Witt, to name a few – for giving me HOPE.

I want to thank Aubrey Sarvis and the hundreds of SLDN volunteers who have served over the years, and especially now.  Some of us have been called “the voice,” but SLDN has always been “the heart and the soul” of this fight.  For years, you faced the tough challenges, did the hard work, got your hands dirty, trying to make life better for thousands of brave, patriotic Americans.  And you do all of this with no fanfare, and too often, very little thanks.  I have received thousands of messages from all over the world, thanking ME for speaking out.  But really, ALL of those messages were for YOU!  Without SLDN, I would have never had a voice and I would have never had the courage.  

I want to give another special thanks to Rachel Maddow.  Not only did she give me a voice, but she was perhaps the only person in the national media who kept this issue on the front burner-on ANY burner-for years.  She publicly pressed policy makers to keep their promises and she made sure this struggle was consistently in the public consciousness.  Rachel:  Thanks so much for your leadership, your voice, your dedication, and most of all, your friendship!

At the end of the day, I don’t think anything I have done was due to courage on MY part.  I simply did the right thing-did what my mama taught me, as they say-and I felt I had an obligation and duty to speak out.  People have courage, because of the love, strength, and faith of those around them.  No one has courage ALONE.  

Few people know this, but for a year, while I was going through this struggle very privately, only five of my closest friends knew what was going on in my life.  The day I was informed of my possible discharge, still in utter shock, I called Mike Almy.  He went through this pain 3 years earlier.  After a long, panicked conversation, he advised me to go to SLDN’s website and read everything I could, and then call them as soon as I could.  He told me that SLDN could help.  And so I have to thank Mike for, really, EVERYTHING since then.  The next week, I called my four other best friends-Mike, Jenny, Jimbo, and Nick-told them my story and asked for advice.  I told them I just wanted a quick, quiet, fair, honorable discharge….I wanted to make this ALL go away, get a job, and move on with life.  They all agreed.  After days of soul searching, I had a change of heart.  I thought that perhaps I could tell my story, and make a positive impact and help others.  When I mentioned this to my five close friends, they ALL admitted that’s what they wanted me to say from the first day.  From that point, every time a major issue or decision came up, I called them for their advice.  They helped me make the ultimate decision to go public last spring.  Just saying thank you to these five can never be enough.  This honor is for them-it is for THEIR courage.

My last, and most important, thanks goes to my family:  to my mom-the greatest, strongest person I’ve ever known, to my 7 brothers and sisters, and to my 17 nieces and nephews.  Without THEIR courage, strength, and love, none of this would have ever happened.  Because, you see-very few people know this as well-but every single one of them got a vote.

Last May, when I contacted Kevin and Emily at SLDN and told them I had made the decision to go public, they were excited and made all the arrangements in just a few short days.  I was scheduled to appear on The Rachel Maddow Show on Tuesday, but there was a catch:  it was Friday, and I hadn’t even COME OUT to my family yet, let alone told them I was getting thrown out of the military, let alone that I was going on national TV to talk about it.  

Now, I drop bombs for a living, but these were three really big bombs!  

So I told Kevin and Emily that I would tell my family over the weekend, and if any ONE person in my family had any ONE reason to say NO, the deal would be off.  I was not about to drag any member of my family through all of this.  One by one, they ALL agreed, not only SHOULD I do this, but I HAD to do this-it was a duty….an obligation.  

After this support structure was set up on Monday, I told my mom.  She simply said that we were ALL in this together, and that she loved me, was proud of me, and supported me.  This honor is for her and for them-it is for THEIR courage. No one has courage ALONE.  

To all of the amazing people I’ve acknowledge tonight, I owe a tremendous debt that cannot be measured, nor fully repaid.  I can only MAKE one simple promise:  to pay it forward-to help others the way you’ve helped me.  And I can KEEP another simple promise, in the words of my Commander-in-Chief:  ”WE WILL GET THIS DONE!”

     Thank you for this incredible honor.  God bless you, and God bless America!

First let me say, that I am truly Humbled, Honored, and truly Grateful for this recognition tonight.  

I am especially honored that it was presented by Pat and Wally Kutteles.  I don’t have words to describe what this means to me.  I only hope that I can do honor to Barry’s memory and live up to his legacy.  This fight is for him and the thousands of others who did not have a voice.  Thank you so much!  

Congressman Murphy, thank you-not only for your presence and words here tonight-but more importantly, for your military service and your leadership in Congress.  It’s so important that we have a recent combat veteran lead this fight, because YOU know first-hand that this is about combat effectiveness and National Security.  Thank you, sir.

Of all the awards  and decorations that I’ve received through my career, THIS means the most to me, because it was the most hard-fought-NOT by me, but by the thousands of brave, honorable service members who came before me, laying the ground work and giving me the inspiration to speak out.  

No ONE person truly deserves this honor, because no ONE person has earned it alone.  No one has courage ALONE.

I want to thank pioneers like Colonel Gretta Cammermeyer, Commander Zoe Dunning, Sergeant Darren Manzella, and my personal hero, Major Margie Witt, to name a few-for giving me HOPE.

I want to thank Aubrey Sarvis and the hundreds of SLDN volunteers who have served over the years, and especially now.  Some of us have been called “the voice,” but SLDN has always been “the heart and the soul” of this fight.  For years, you faced the tough challenges, got your hands dirty, and did the hard work-trying to make life better for thousands of brave, patriotic Americans.  And you did all of this with no fanfare-and too often-very little thanks.  I have received thousands of messages from all over the world, thanking ME for speaking out.  But really, ALL of those messages were for YOU!  Without SLDN, I would have never had a voice and I would have never had the courage.  

I want to give another special thanks to Rachel Maddow.  Not only did she give me the opportunity to speak out-but she was perhaps the only person in the national media who kept this issue on the front burner-on ANY burner-for years.  She pressed policy makers to keep their promises, and she made sure this struggle was consistently in the public consciousness.  Rachel:  Thanks so much for your leadership, your voice, your dedication, and most of all, your friendship!

At the end of the day, I don’t think anything I have done was due to courage on MY part.  I simply did the right thing-did what my mama taught me, as they say-and I felt I had an obligation and duty to speak out.  People have courage, because of the love, strength, and faith of those around them.  No one has courage ALONE.  

Few people know this, but for a year-while I was going through this struggle very privately-only five of my closest friends knew what was going on in my life.  The day I was informed of my possible discharge-still in utter shock-I called my old high-school and Air Force buddy, Mike Almy.  He went through this pain 3 years earlier.  After a long, panicked conversation, he advised me to go to SLDN’s website and read everything I could, and then call them as soon as possible.  He told me that SLDN could help.  And so, I have to thank Mike for-really-EVERYTHING since then.  The next week, I called four more close friends-Mike, Jenny, Jimbo, and Nick-told them the whole story and asked for advice.  

I told them I just wanted a quick, quiet, fair, honorable discharge.  I wanted to make ALL of this go away, get a job, and move on with life.  They all agreed.  After days of soul searching, I had a change of heart.

I thought that perhaps I could tell my story, make a positive impact, and help others.  When I mentioned this to my five close friends, they ALL admitted that’s what they wanted me to say from the first day.  

From that point, every time a major issue or decision came up, I called them for their advice.  They helped me make the ultimate decision to go public last spring.  Just saying thank you to these five can never be enough.  This honor is for them-it is for THEIR courage.

My last, and most important, thanks goes to my family:  to my mom-the greatest, strongest person I’ve ever known-to my 7 brothers and sisters, and to my 17 nieces and nephews.  Without THEIR courage, strength, and love, none of this would have ever happened.  Because, you see-very few people know this as well-but every single one of them got a vote.

Last May, when I contacted Kevin and Emily at SLDN and told them I had made the decision to go public, they were excited and made all the arrangements in just a few short days.  I was scheduled to appear on The Rachel Maddow Show on Tuesday….but there was a catch:  it was Friday, and I hadn’t even COME OUT to my family yet, let alone told them I was getting thrown out of the military, let alone that I was going on national TV to talk about it.  

Now, I drop bombs for a living, but these were three really big bombs!  

So I told Kevin and Emily that I would tell my family over the weekend, and if any ONE person in my family had any ONE reason to say NO, the deal would be off.  I was not about to drag my family through all of this.  One by one, they ALL agreed:  Not only SHOULD I do this, but I HAD to do this-it was a duty, an obligation.

After this support structure was set up on Monday, I told my mother.  She simply said that we were ALL in this together, and that she loved me, was proud of me, and supported me.  This honor is for her, and for them-it is for THEIR courage. No one has courage ALONE.  

Thank you for this incredible honor.  God bless you, God bless America!

OK, Blenders. I really did meet Rachel Maddow. One day maybe I’ll get Skyped onto the show. :)

From SLDN 18th Annual National Dinner

***

Jon Soltz, Iraq War veteran, co-founder and chair of Vote Vets.org.

Thank you for having me here tonight. While in Iraq, I served with gay comrades every day, fighting alongside them in the trenches and in the foxhole. When you’re on the battlefield trying to complete the mission, sexual orientation really doesn’t matter. And brave patriots who put their lives on the line for freedom shouldn’t be fired for something as irrelevant as being gay. That’s why “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has got to go. It is my pleasure to introduce you to someone very special. You might know her as Melanie Marcus from the hit series “Queer As Folk,” or from her new role on ABC’s “Make It Or Break It.” Let’s put our hands together and give a warm welcome to actress and repeal advocate, Michelle Clunie.

Rep. Patrick Murphy’s keynote speech.

Thank you all so much.

I am incredibly honored to join you tonight.  

I want you to know that I have been so proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with you over the last year.  I’ve been proud to stand with my battle buddy Aubrey, and with SLDN’s dedicated members as you fight every day for what we know is right.  

Most of all, I’ve been proud to stand with our heroes- our veterans- as we continue to work together to repeal the discriminatory policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.

 ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”  is a law that hurts our national security and the American taxpayer.  ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”  says that brave, talented Americans can’t serve our country simply because of who they are.  

That’s just wrong.  

Let me be perfectly clear- the time to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”  is now.

Now is the time for Congress to stand up and end this policy. We have kicked out over 13,500 brave men and women from our military- not for any misconduct- but simply because they are gay Americans.  And we’ve wasted $1.3 billion in taxpayer dollars doing it.  

We’ve lost hundreds of mission-critical soldiers:

Medics.

Helicopter pilots.

Arabic language translators.

Troops we need in the field right now, working to protect our country.  

And I know, from firsthand experience, just how wrong and senseless that is: when I was serving in Iraq in 138 degree heat, the men in my unit didn’t care whether you were straight or gay.  They cared whether or not you could fire an M4, whether you could kick down a door- whether you could get everyone in our unit home alive.

Since I took over the leadership of repealing DADT, I have gotten letters from all over the country, and from overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have affected me deeply.  One in particular was sent by a company commander in Afghanistan, still serving right this minute, and living with the incredible burden of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”  every single day.

He wrote of the vital support role that military spouses and other family members play for individual soldiers- support that is fundamentally closed off to partners of gay service members.

He wrote of the terrible strain he endured after his serious long-term relationship ended- strain compounded by the burden and isolation imposed by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, when he knew he could not go to his commander or his battle buddy for support.  

He wrote about isolation and grief so desperate that he sat “alone in Afghanistan, cradling [his] government-issued pistol in [his] hands and [fought] the urge to blow [his] own brains out.”  

As a leader himself, he knew how valuable the counsel and support of his fellow soldiers had been to straight troops in similar situations.  

Here are his words: [A]s someone with extensive experience as both a platoon leader and company commander…  [w]hen I have been in such leadership positions, I have had straight soldiers share with me some of the most shockingly intimate details about their personal lives. I was glad that these straight soldiers put their trust in me, because I was able to offer each one the counsel or moral support that he or she needed at that time.

Gay soldiers should also have that right to go to a commander, a first sergeant, or a battle buddy and not have to the worry about the ramifications of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy shackles the hands of leaders like me. It prevents us from giving all of our troops the supportive leadership they deserve. The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy throws up walls between battle buddies.  

“It is an ugly stain on our national honor.”

I couldn’t agree with this hero more.  So I want to repeat my pledge to you – that I will continue to work every day to get more Members of Congress to stand up until we finally allow all men and women who love our country to serve our country, and to do so honestly and openly. Until we finally repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Thank you very much.

Jon Soltz and Michelle Clunie

Gay Men’s Chorus of DC