An opportunity for a full-ride to law school seemed to be a perfect turn of events, yet Michelle Benecke found herself unable to accept. The military, recognizing Benecke’s potential, proposed to cover all expenses for her to attend law school, an offer she respectfully declined. As a Captain and an up-and-coming star in the U.S. Army’s officer cadre, Benecke was bound for a promising future as a Judge Advocate General (JAG) officer. But a moral obstacle loomed before her: she would be compelled to prosecute soldiers on the grounds of their sexual orientation. This was a practice that Benecke fundamentally disagreed with, and her strong principles wouldn’t allow her to participate in it.
Instead, Captain Benecke, a decorated officer renowned for her notable achievements, chose to leave her flourishing military career behind. She pivoted, becoming a fervent advocate for the rights of individuals regardless of their sexual orientation. Benecke’s advocacy work, focused on protecting the rights of military personnel and civilians alike, has left a substantial imprint on history. Her diligent endeavors extended beyond her immediate sphere, reaching the corridors of Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and even the White House. Because of Benecke’s tireless efforts, the military’s outdated and prejudiced “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was finally dismantled. Thanks to her advocacy, all service members, regardless of their sexual orientation, could serve without fear of retribution.
Even though Benecke declined the Army’s offer of a free law school education in 1989, she realized her dream of becoming a lawyer by securing her place and funding her way through Harvard’s esteemed Law School.
With a law degree under her belt and a distinct military background, Benecke ventured forth to effect change. As the co-founder of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, she quickly gained recognition for her expertise in defending civil rights. The tireless efforts of Benecke and her colleague, Dixon Osburn, resulted in the repeal of military policies that discriminated based on sexual orientation, propelling their advocacy work to new heights.
Benecke’s unique background made her the ideal person to spearhead the campaign to abolish “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” Her firsthand experience of military life, combined with her inherent inclination toward advocacy, public service, and humanitarian causes, swiftly thrust her into the spotlight. She became instrumental in what would ultimately be one of the most significant military policy shifts of the last century—the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Indeed, Benecke and Osburn’s campaign targeted a deeply flawed law, aiming to address it out of respect for military service rather than opposition to it. For Benecke, the military held a significant place in her family’s legacy, spanning several generations. Her father, a Vietnam veteran, retired as a Master Sergeant. This rich family history of military service informed Benecke’s decision to follow in her father’s footsteps. As a university freshman at the University of Virginia, Benecke joined the ROTC program while pursuing her academic studies.
Upon graduating from UVA, Benecke accepted her commission as an Army Officer, quickly ascending to the rank of Captain in the Air Defense Artillery branch. She was a leader among combat arms soldiers, often deployed to Southwest Asia and the Middle East.
Benecke broke new ground as one of the first female officers in the combat arms field. Armed with combat parachutist and air assault qualifications, she achieved milestones that had historically been inaccessible to women in the military. Unfortunately, her accomplishments and those of other pioneering women were often met with an environment steeped in misogyny, including sexual harassment. Women who dared to challenge this unfavorable atmosphere were often unjustly scrutinized and unjustifiably accused of being homosexual, leading to investigations regardless of their actual sexual orientation.
But Benecke’s decision to leave the military was not a result of this hostile environment. Instead, it was a matter of principle. She was faced with the moral conundrum of having to prosecute fellow soldiers based on their sexual orientation. Guided by the value of “Personal Courage” – one of the seven Army core values she learned in ROTC – Benecke chose to leave the uniform behind and enter the world of civil rights advocacy.
Benecke’s transition to civilian life coincided with the transition from the Reagan administration to the Clinton administration. Hopes were high within the LGBTQ+ community that this political shift might signal the end of anti-LGBTQ+ policies in the military. However, these hopes were dashed with the introduction of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ in 1993.
Despite the new administration’s promises, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ remained a blight on the military’s record through the 1990s, the 2000s, and into the second decade of the new millennium. But, on December 18, 2010, the Senate voted for the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, which was officially abolished on September 20, 2011, after an agonizing eighteen years during which many lost their careers.
Michelle Benecke and her Servicemembers Legal Defense Network had been advocating for the abolition of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ for nearly two decades. Despite the formidable opposition and seemingly insurmountable challenges, they persisted and ultimately prevailed.
Benecke’s significant contributions to the military did not occur within its ranks, but rather on its behalf. Her tireless efforts helped to ensure that military personnel, both current and future, could pursue their careers without fear of reprisal or punishment for being true to themselves.
It’s estimated that almost 115,000 servicemembers were discharged between World War II and the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ because they were identified as (or were perceived to be) part of the LGB community. To contextualize this, the figure represents about 10% of today’s total armed forces.
Although the U.S. Government took far too long to abolish ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, the legal victory was finally achieved. As President Obama said during the signing of the bill, “For we are not a nation that says, ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ We are a nation that says, ‘Out of many, we are one.’ We are a nation that welcomes the service of every patriot. We are a nation that believes that all men and women are created equal. Those are the ideals that generations have fought for. Those are the ideals that we uphold today.”
And so, after years of tireless advocacy, Benecke saw the fruit of her efforts when President Obama signed the bill into law, paving the way for a more inclusive military.
About Michelle Benecke
Michelle Benecke, a celebrated advocate for equality in the military, began her journey in the U.S. Army as a freshman at the University of Virginia. During her university years, she joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program, embracing the family tradition of military service. Her remarkable talent and dedication quickly elevated her to the position of Captain, setting a significant precedent as a woman in an overwhelmingly male-dominated sphere.
In 1989, the military presented Benecke with an offer to fund her law education. However, due to her strong moral convictions, she respectfully declined the opportunity and charted a different course.
Turning towards the legal field, Benecke pursued her law education independently at Harvard’s prestigious Law School. Her unique combination of military experience and legal expertise equipped her with the skills needed to effect change in the broader society. After earning her law degree, she embarked on a path of civil rights advocacy, with a particular focus on the rights of military personnel.
This passion for advocacy led to co-founding the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an organization dedicated to championing service members’ rights. Benecke’s expertise and unwavering commitment were instrumental in abolishing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
Benecke’s journey from military officer to legal advocate reflects her relentless dedication to achieving equality. Her work has transformed the landscape of military service, setting a new benchmark for acceptance and inclusivity.
Contact Michelle Benecke
340 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington D.C, 20510