But Can I Wear My Uniform?
|by Stefani Deoul
|The Fifth Annual Summer Gathering of the Delaware Stonewall Democrats is July 26th, at the Silver Lake home of Dr. James D'Orta. Along with the elected officials in attendance there will be five honoreesand this is a tale of one of them, Dr. Elizabeth "Bitsy" Recupero.
A conversation with Bitsy is disarming. She is charming, vivacious and yet refreshingly direct, maintaining a sense of humor while detailing a seemingly charmed life thrust into chaos.
Some background: As a Boston high-schooler, Bitsy applied for and won a four-year Army ROTC Scholarship and at age eighteen, headed off to Penn State. Fabulous grades in her Military classes were not exactly matched by her general studies, as she freely admits taking a bit too much advantage of some "extra-curricular activities." However, determined to go to medical school, Bitsy pursued her education, graduating in 1996, Number 1 in her class at the University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Then, she got her first taste of Army bureaucracy. With an Army ROTC Scholarship, she applied for a Military Residency in Internal Medicine at Walter Reed. A military snafu caused her to miss out on all the good military assignments, prompting her to request a civilian internship. Once the logistics were cleared, Dr. Elizabeth Recupero went on to complete a demanding double residency, in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics.
So, it would seem a happy ending to a snafu, but in hindsight, it would be only an appetizer for what life would serve up.
During her last year of residency, Elizabeth Recupero met Judith "Judy" Levinson at a Tea Dance in New Hope and was smitten. The next day, she waited until all of two seconds past their "I'll call you time" so that she wouldn't appear overly anxious.
Aware of her military commitment, Bitsy told Judy she could not get serious, as she would be leaving to serve in less than ten months. But fate stepped in for this charmed pair. Just three weeks after meeting Judy, Bitsy received a letter discharging her from duty as the army downsized. Her discharge date was November 1, 2000.
Life was fabulous. Bitsy was head over heels in love and now known as Doctor Recupero. But then, the second letter arrivedapparently she was not only "undischarged," she was now promoted to Major Recupero and headed to Fort Drum, New York.
Again, Bitsy laughs, "When I stop and think, I get myself into trouble." When Judy agreed to come with her, Bitsy simply figured they could go to Vermont for a civil union ceremony and the military would have to recognize it. She expected Judy to receive "all spousal privileges on the base." So wedding bells blissfully rang out.
But at the urging of friends, who were not exactly convinced this was a brilliant idea, Bitsy did concede to check with the Human Rights Campaign. Not only did the HRC tell her she couldn't do this, they explained she had two choices1) go to New York with Judy and live as best friends, doing nothing suggestive to avoid being court martialed or 2) write a "coming out letter," choosing to serve open and honestly. Optimistic and direct, Bitsy chose option two, sending a letter off to her commanding officer.
And thus, she unwittingly fired a shot heard through the ranks. It unleashed a five-year saga that would not have been resolved without the hard work of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN).
Most of us are aware of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. What most of us don't know is that the policy is actually "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue and Don't Harass." This is the only law in America that makes it illegal to come out. While most people assume the policy is a benign "gentlemen's agreement" in discretion, they are wrong. An honest statement of one's sexual orientation to anyone, anywhere, anytime may lead to being fired.
And so it proved to Bitsy. For an organization with a policy not to pursue, the charges flew anyway. From "conduct unbecoming an officer" to simple "sexual misconduct," the inquiry continued. The irony to Bitsy was "what could they have to pursue or harass? It wasn't as if there was a question. I wrote the letter."
So for five years, Dr. Recupero found herself at the receiving end of an investigation. Charged with crimes such as sodomy, Bitsy found herself wondering a) how could they possibly charge her with a crime they were most assuredly not there to witness, and b) how many straight officers had ever engaged in sodomy but were never charged?
During these five years, Bitsy was technically "on hold" with the military, but she and Judy moved forward. They bought a building in Lambertville, NJ and set up a private practice.
There were offers floated to end this saga, but Elizabeth Recupero believes in keeping a promise. She'll tell you she's taken only three oaths in her lifeher military oath to protect and serve, her Hippocratic Oath, and her wedding vowsand she holds each of those sacred.
Likewise, for the military, there are three options for dischargedishonorable, general, and honorable.
And when a general discharge was offered, she refused it. The discharge might not have mattered to her, as her private practice was doing quite well, but a general discharge impacts those who need "references." For example, if you leave the military with a general discharge and apply to be a state trooper, you will not qualify. Bitsy held on and fought for what was hers and what should be everyone'san honorable discharge.
The SLDN fought valiantly. And on June 1, 2005, the military finally resolved the issuethey granted Dr. Recupero an Honorable Discharge dated November 1, 2000the date they originally discharged her five years before. A date that, not coincidentally, predated the entire Don't Ask, Don't Tell tale.
Finally it would seem that Bitsy's tilt-a-world ride should be ending. Not so. It continued to spin as Judy now battles Metastatic Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer with only about 5,000 new cases diagnosed each year. Sadly, their lives are on hold again.
Now, Bitsy struggles to support Judy as Judy supported her. And despite her care-giver status, she made room to come to Rehoboth to be honored. Not for the honor, she laughs and says, "she is just who she is," but she comes so that the SLDN will be honored through her and that we will recognize their work and their need.
In a life filled with honor and integrity, it is fascinating to note that Dr. Elizabeth Recupero has been head-hunted for the last eight years by both the army and the navy to come serve as a civilian doctor. Her answer, "I'm already there. Just one question, can I wear my uniform?" So far, apparently not.
For information on the July 26, Delaware Stonewall Democratic Club's event, go to delawarestonewall.org. or call 302-227-2857. For information on the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, please go to www.sldn.org.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 18, No. 09 July 11, 2008