A decorated soldier who disclosed his homosexuality during last weekend’s gay rights march in Washington received a chilly homecoming Thursday when his superiors promptly launched proceedings to discharge him from the Army.
Sgt. Jose M. Zuniga, who won a medal for his service as a combat medic in the Persian Gulf War, was told that his career in uniform is over because he violates the military’s ban on homosexuals.
“Under Army Regulation 635-200, Sgt. Zuniga must be separated from the service for reasons of homosexuality,” said Lt. Col. Steven Fredericks, Zuniga’s former boss in the Presidio of San Francisco’s Office of Public Affairs.
Despite that assessment, the sergeant’s story may ultimately have a different ending.
President Clinton has declared his intention to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military and has ordered the Pentagon to supply him with a plan for doing so by July 15. Zuniga, 23, could be placed on unpaid standby reserve until the controversial question is resolved, an Army spokeswoman in Washington said.
“If that happens, and if President Clinton lifts the ban, then he would be permitted to come back into the Army,” said the spokeswoman, Sgt. 1st Class Dawn Kilpatrick. “He would not be penalized at all.”
For now, authorities said Zuniga will continue his duties at the Presidio, where he has served since December, 1991, as a journalist in the public affairs office. The sergeant said his encounters Thursday with supervisors and fellow soldiers were uniformly “friendly and cooperative.” “I was a little apprehensive at first because I expected some harassment,” Zuniga said in an interview. “That was not the case at all. In fact, I was stopped many times and congratulated.”
Zuniga said his goal in disclosing his homosexuality was to “place a face to the issue so that people will understand the irrationality of this policy. There are thousands of us (gays and lesbians) in the Army, and we are good soldiers. We are not the predators people have made us out to be.”
Fellow soldiers at the Presidio, meanwhile, had mixed reactions. Some said the sergeant’s declaration of homosexuality, which was all but certain to lead to his discharge, symbolized a lack of commitment to his military career.
“If he was truly dedicated, he would have kept all this secret,” said one sergeant who, like nearly a dozen other soldiers interviewed, declined to give his name. “If you ask me, him doing this is a disgrace and a big slap in the face to the Army.”
But others praised Zuniga’s accomplishments and said his personal life had no bearing on his abilities as a soldier: “If he’s a good soldier, he’s a good soldier,” one Army specialist said outside the post commissary.
Zuniga enlisted in September, 1989, and has won numerous commendations, including the 6th Army’s Soldier of the Year for 1992.
Zuniga was married when he arrived at the Presidio in 1991 but is now in the midst of divorce proceedings, he said.