Lt. Col. Pam Mindt has survived deployment to Iraq and the demands of more than 33 years of military service. But when the Army National Guard announced recently that she will be promoted to colonel, it marked an entirely different kind of survival story.
The honor comes 18 years after Mindt, 51, walked into the 204th Medical Battalion headquarters in Cottage Grove, preparing to be discharged for conduct unbecoming a commissioned officer. It comes two months after her wedding in Canada.
Mindt’s journey defies the odds because on that day in August 1992 in Minnesota, she had just told her commanding officer that she was a lesbian. And on that same day two months ago in Canada, she married a woman.
So when U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips recently ruled that the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy fails to pass constitutional muster, Mindt stood as an example of how, to some, it doesn’t make practical sense either. She told without anyone asking. But in the eyes of her fellow soldiers and commanders in Minnesota and now in Oregon, she has earned the right to lead.
“It is quite a distinction to be promoted to colonel. The only thing higher is general,” said Col. Michael Rath of the Guard’s 34th Infantry Division in Rosemount and who served with Mindt in southern Iraq in 2007. “In combat terms, it would be on par, rank-wise, with a brigade combat team commander that typically manages up to 4,000 people…recognized for the tactical ability and experience to handle complex problems in a combat zone. And she did a good job with it. I know that first-hand.”
Meritorious service, brutal honesty
Mindt’s fellow soldiers are careful not to talk about her sexuality, even though it’s one of the worst kept secrets in the military. Mindt was the first soldier in Minnesota to face “separation” from the Guard under the old policy that banned gays. She sparked the investigation herself, shortly after Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, the decorated chief nurse of the Washinton National Guard, was dismissed for being a lesbian in 1992.
“Something broke inside,” Mindt said at the time, “and I said, ‘I’ve had it.'” So she came out to her commander.
Even then, Guard officials seemed to pursue the case with reluctance. Mindt, then a captain specializing in mental-health counseling, drew praise from her commanders during the discharge process. The investigation opened with a touching but bizarre scene at battalion headquarters in Cottage Grove.
The job of explaining the investigative process fell to Capt. John T. Dewey, an old friend and fellow soldier of Mindt’s. As he read Mindt her rights, his voice shaking at times, Mindt wept and reached across the table, grasping both of Dewey’s hands. She apologized to Dewey for putting him through such an ordeal.
Months later, a board of officers recommended that Mindt be discharged. But the process stopped before anyone acted on that recommendation.
President Bill Clinton had introduced a new policy known as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue. That left military officials scrambling to determine how to handle ongoing cases that began before the new policy. Gay and lesbian soldiers in some states continued to face discharge. But in Minnesota, Guard officers chose not to act on Mindt’s case. They were also careful not to say why. Eighteen months after the recommendation for discharge, the “flag” on Mindt’s file was lifted, making her eligible for promotion. She was soon promoted to major.
Career takes off
Mindt’s career has since flourished. She provided mental-health counseling for troops in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. She transferred into the Army Reserves in 2002, and has been in and out of active duty since. In 2003, she was mobilized as a member of the 1972nd Medical Detachment and sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where she provided behavioral health services to interrogators and others working at the detention camp.
Master Sgt. Charles Essary remembers Mindt going on a 12-mile march in full gear with more than 60 soldiers while at Guantanamo Bay. “The unit had had a suicide, and we were giving special attention to them,” he said. “She started behind them all; she finished third. And the only reason she came in third was that she got lost. She’s tough as nails.”
She was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal for her work at Guantanamo.
In 2006, she was deployed to Iraq. By then a lieutenant colonel, she commanded a combat stress control attachment in southern Iraq. She oversaw psychiatrists, occupational therapists and other health professionals who counseled troops over a 125,000-square-mile area. Rath said that Mindt created a system of sending health specialists to outlying areas where they could get to soldiers quicker, rather than the previous method of transporting soldiers back to a main camp.
“It was forward-thinking at the time, and duplicated by the unit that replaced them in 2007,” Rath said. “She did a great deal to promote access, and created a model.”
Mindt’s camp often took mortar fire, and she took enemy fire while traveling in Blackhawk helicopters.
“We had teams that were far forward, and she would fly there and make sure those teams were well kept,” said Essary, who also served with Mindt in Iraq. “She never put our soldiers in danger without her being there first.”
Mindt said her experience in Iraq, where she earned a Bronze Star for Meritorious Service, proved to her once again that sexuality has nothing to do with a soldier’s fitness to serve.
“When I was in a helicopter and being fired upon, I’d look across at the guy and it didn’t matter if he was black or Indian or Asian, or if he was sleeping with a guy,” she said. “If you just allow people to do their jobs and be professional, it’s not gonna be an issue. The ban is more about people’s negative attitudes. Get your mind out of the bedroom and let me be a soldier.”
Two years ago, Mindt transferred to the Oregon Army National Guard, where she continues to provide behavioral health service to members of the Army and Air Guards. She doesn’t talk openly about her sexuality, feeling that she no longer needs to press the issue.
“I’m a higher ranking officer now, and I don’t want to put someone in the position of, if they know, they have to start an investigation and they have to be responsible for ending my career.”
Story well known
Still, it’s clear her story is well known to those she works with, and only in part because of the press coverage of her near-discharge years ago. She has wedding pictures on her Facebook page, and other military members attended the reception. She attends conferences with her partner.
“They’ve talked about my background more than I have,” she said. “The family coordinator once introduced me, saying, ‘She’s very famous.’ I talk individually about who I live with.”
But Mindt knows that other soldiers feel they have to be more careful. They can’t talk about their relationships, and don’t get the benefit of family services that the military provides to heterosexual service members. As a mental health expert, Mindt knows what they’re missing.
“If you’re heterosexual you get to talk about your family, you get to have your family supported when you get deployed. If you’re homosexual, you don’t get that same support.”
Though President Obama has vowed to end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, his Justice Department has opposed Judge Phillip’s ruling, saying Congress should have authority to repeal the policy. Not everyone believes it should be repealed, particularly Republicans in the Senate, who helped block a recent repeal effort on grounds that it could threaten unit cohesion and combat effectiveness. Future action by Congress could be in doubt pending results of the upcoming midterm elections.
Mindt says the policy needs to go, one way or another, because gay and lesbian military members shouldn’t have to be closeted.
“I’ve been living my life. I don’t need people to know about me. But I know there are people serving out there who are suffering and don’t have anyone to talk to when they’re having problems,” she said. “Not only are you serving in silence, but you’re also suffering in silence.”
Chris Ison, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, writes on a variety of topics.