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Vermont Law, Long a Holdout, Lifting Military Ban

SOUTH ROYALTON, Vt. — When military recruiters begin arriving this month for the first time in more than a decade at Vermont Law School, it will have a special meaning for Alex Manning.

Manning, a lesbian, graduated from the law school in 2006, 17 years after she was discharged from the Army for a “failure to adapt to military standards.”

She was serving as a private at Fort Lewis, Wash., when she went to a farewell dinner for a friend who was being discharged for being a lesbian, and then out with a group to a gay bar. The investigation started soon after.

“It had the flavor of a witch hunt,” she said, adding that she soon followed her friend in being expelled from the service. In the days before the Clinton administration created “don’t ask, don’t tell,” she said, the policy was, “We asked. You lied. You’re out of here.”

Manning, now 42, went on to a career in law enforcement, working as a drug detective for the Georgia Bureau of Investigations in her native state, as well as other agencies.

Last week, she traveled north from Atlanta, where she practices family and criminal law, to attend a ceremony at Vermont Law marking the end of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and the end of a ban on military recruiters by the small, unaffiliated law school.

The ban wasn’t a 1970s-style protest against U.S. military involvements, school officials said.

“We had a non-discrimination policy in place that includes the idea that no employer can be allowed on campus who’s going to discriminate against our students based on their membership in a protected class,” said Jackie Gardina, a professor at the school who was active in a national group that fought to overturn the military policy.

Professor L. Kinvin Wroth, a former dean of the 650-student law school, said its policy barring military recruiters dated from the mid-1980s, years before the Clinton administration adopted the policy that became known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 1993.

In 1996, Congress passed an amendment cutting off federal aid, including financial aid, to schools that barred recruiters from campus. Wroth said the law school would have been devastated if its students had been denied access to federal loans and grants and changed its policy for a couple of years.

It later switched back to banning recruiters after Congress dropped student financial aid from the forms of federal assistance denied schools that barred recruiters. Since that 1999 decision, the school has forsaken an estimated $300,000 to $500,000 a year in other forms of federal help.

The William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota, like Vermont Law a small, independent school, also banned recruiters during the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era but is ending its policy with the federal repeal. It and Vermont Law were the only law schools in the country to stick with the ban. Others were affiliated with larger schools, which would have lost funding for a range of programs.

“It wasn’t as if we were a medical school or a physics department that essentially depended for its continued funding streams” on the federal government, Wroth said. “Once federal (student) aid was out from under the thumb we were not under serious pressure.”

Wroth argued that while the recruiter ban has drawn most of the attention, the law school’s role as a national leader in the movement to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” may have been more effective. The school sponsored a student trip to Washington each spring, with students lobbying Congress to make the change.

Gardina wrote a white paper and later a law review article on the legal issues connected with “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Wroth said when former Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke about the impending repeal in February, he used language strikingly similar to Gardina’s.

When the policy was eliminated Sept. 20, it became clear immediately that recruiters looking for young lawyers to staff the services’ Judge Advocate General Corps would no longer have to meet with students in the conference room of a bank across the street from the picturesque campus along the White River.

“The fact that we have welcomed them back so soon after the policy was lifted is evidence of the point we’ve made along, which is that our position has never been anti-military; it’s anti-discrimination,” said Greg Johnson, another law professor and longtime campus leader on the issue.

The Marines are famous for going in first, but this time it will be JAG recruiters from the Army who come to campus on Oct. 14, followed by Marine representatives on Oct. 26.

Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said in an e-mail that recruiters’ job is to promote the military to students as “a great opportunity to further their education, gain a marketable skill, become independent, and serve their country. Most students do not know individuals who have served in the military, and wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to the opportunities the military can offer.”

Several students interviewed at the school Monday said they were fine with recruiters coming to campus; two of the eight questioned said they might be interested in talking to the recruiters.

“I’m glad to see it, personally,” said Ellick Clark, 29, a second-year student from Iron Station, N.C. “I’ve considered a career with the JAG Corps after graduating.”

Manning says one inspiration for her was Shirley Jefferson, the law school’s associate dean for student affairs. A native of Selma, Ala., Jefferson, 58, said she was 11 when she joined Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic march from Selma to Montgomery and was a member of the class that desegregated Selma High School.

Both Manning and Jefferson said they saw parallels in their struggles.

Jefferson recalled from her childhood her father telling her she couldn’t have an ice cream cone because the shop they were passing was Whites-only.

“All I wanted was an ice cream cone,” she said. “All she (Manning) wanted was to be herself.”

When they got to South Royalton and Vermont Law School, Jefferson in 1982 and Manning in 2003, “We were accepted for who we were, no matter our color or sexual orientation. We could be ourselves,” Jefferson said.

“South Royalton is my Selma, Ala.,” Manning said. “Big things start in little bitty towns.”

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