Feature

As a high school student in rural Wisconsin, Jordan Simonson dreamed of serving his country as a U.S. Air Force pilot. When a recruiter came to his high school, Simonson signed up to talk to him. Turned out there was one insurmountable problem: Simonson is gay. "I came out when I was 12," he says. "The recruiter told me, ‘At this time, you could not serve.'"

The military's attitude toward homosexuality goes back to 1778, when Frederick Gotthold Enslin became the first American soldier to be discharged from the army because he was gay. Under "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT), the Clinton-era policy compromise that let lesbian and gay service members serve as long as they didn't act on or reveal their sexual orientation, more than 13,000 troops were discharged for being gay. Others, like Jordan Simonson, simply didn't pursue careers in the military in the first place.

Instead, Simonson looked for a different way to serve others. He knew something about the mental health field from his mother, a social worker, and he liked the idea of a career empowering other people. He studied psychology and sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and went on to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology at Seattle Pacific University. During that time, he also volunteered at a hospice program for people living with HIV/AIDS and led psychoeducational and support groups for LGBT teens.

"That work helped me better understand the issues LGBT youth face in our world today, their strengths and the kinds of interventions that may ensure the success of this generation," he says.

It also inspired and informed his research on anxiety and depression in the LGBT community, especially among children and teens.

In his third year of graduate school, Simonson was dating a former Army sergeant, who heard through the veterans' grapevine that "Don't Ask Don't Tell" was likely to be repealed. "That was a pleasant surprise," says Simonson. "I thought it would take a lot longer."

By that point he had friends in the military, and he'd become aware of the mental health issues service members and veterans faced. So, he called each Air Force training site and talked with the training directors, mentioning the fact that he was gay and asking if he might be a good fit there. In September 2011, DADT was repealed, and Simonson applied for a psychology internship with the Air Force. In August 2012, Simonson became the first openly gay psychology resident in the U.S. military.

Simonson is now completing his internship at the Malcolm Grow Medical Clinic at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. He says repeal offers benefits to both gay and straight service members. Gay friends who had to keep rigid boundaries between their personal and professional lives can now integrate the two more naturally. And Simonson thinks the fact that he's out makes it easier for members of other minority groups in the military to open up to him in treatment, especially if sexual orientation is a presenting problem.

Overall, though, Simonson and others say the repeal of DADT marks more of a policy shift than a huge social change in military culture.

"A lot of LGB troops were already out to people in their unit even before the repeal," says Stacey Furia, PhD, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles and co-author of the report "One Year Out: An Assessment of DADT Repeal's Impact on Military Readiness." "But the fact that Simonson is out to begin with — that's a new thing," says Furia.

While Simonson is thrilled to serve in the Air Force and proud to be a positive role model, he's more interested in the work he's doing than in the symbolism of his position.

"My No. 1 priority is applying my clinical skills to help all service members," he says.

During the first half of his internship, he conducted individual and group therapy, including work with a number of lesbian, gay and bisexual soldiers. He's also one of the first people to talk to service members who return early from deployment due to mental health issues.

"The plane lands, and I go out there and talk to them," says Simonson. "It's great to feel I'm contributing to people who have offered so much for their country. I get to be part of welcoming them back and seeing if we can help."

In the second half of his internship, Simonson is helping service members with such health issues as diabetes, sleep problems and substance abuse. Come August, he'll be awarded a PhD from Seattle Pacific, and the Air Force will send him to a base, most likely to a medical treatment facility, possibly in a combat zone.

Simonson is looking forward to his next assignment. "So long as I can help and support Air Force members, LGB and straight alike, I'll feel a sense of accomplishment," he says.

Harriet Brown is a writer and professor of magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.