By all accounts, Denise Lannaman was a woman who found her calling in the United States Army. After bouncing from job to job for years (including as a firefighter, a sailor, a filmmaker, a scuba diver, a paramedic and an auto mechanic), Lannaman enlisted in the Army following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. She soon found herself in Iraq, then later in Kuwait, where her superiors said she gave a "superb performance." But Sergeant Lannaman was also hiding a secret from command: that she was a lesbian. So when Lannaman was found dead by an apparent suicide last year, questions began to surface. Was she blackmailed? Was she threatened with being outed? And was she the latest service member to find themselves in an untenable position created by the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on openly gay troops?
What Really Happened to Denise Lannaman?
According to yesterday's New York Times, Sergeant Lannaman was well-respected by her peers and her command, and did an impressive job serving her country in the armed forces. In December 2005, she was assigned to work with a logistics group that purchased millions of dollars in supplies. Because of her oversight, the Army saw a decrease in the 'misuse of funds' by 36% . . . no small feat for a government entity known for its overpriced toilet seats and $450 billion annual budget.
Lannaman also grew closer to her family during her time in the service. “I never put that child to sleep from my arms — she always wanted to climb into the bed, and that was it: ‘Leave me alone,’ ” her mother told the Times. “The time that she was in the Army was the closest we were in her whole life. She used to e-mail me every morning, or call.”
But in August 2006, Lannaman found herself somehow embroiled in a bribery scandal, and her military career - as well as her life - would soon be in jeopardy.
That month, Lt. Col. Marshall Gutierrez, was arrested outside a restaurant in Kuwait. He was accused of shaking down a laundry contractor for a $3,400 bribe. Lannaman, who had so expertly performed her job and clamped down on such behavior by Army soldiers, somehow didn't catch Gutierrez.
All we know is this: On October 1, Lannaman met with her command. They told her that she would be "sent home in disgrace," but gave no details about why. "A few hours later, she was found dead in a jeep from a gunshot wound," the Times reported yesterday. "She had just turned 46."
Was Lannaman the subject of a blackmail threat by Gutierrez, who used her sexual orientation to force her into silence? And had Lannaman not been the target of such a campaign, would she have continued her promising Army career, with the praise and appreciation of her command?
Some signs, at least, point to 'yes.'
“Were they trying to scare her, had she stepped on toes of people who were profiteering, did someone threaten to expose her homosexuality?” Lannaman's sister, Michelle Forgenie, wonders.
The Army will not say. An Army spokesman, Lt. Col. William Wiggins, said that Sergeant Lannaman had not been the subject of any contract investigations, and that he could not say whether she had been threatened with dismissal from the service.
Apparently, even the military doesn't know the real story behind Lannaman's suicide.
But even the possibility that Denise Lannaman could have been the target of a blackmail or outing campaign is reason enough to throw out "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." In truth, when service members can openly enlist in the armed forces, such threates become meaningless and others cannot use the law as a weapon of vengeance when they have an axe to grind . . . or money to grab.
And while we may never know every detail behind Sergeant Lannaman's story, we do know that she is yet another brave, patriotic gay American who put her life on the line and served her country with dignity. And, like too many others, her service was in enforced silence and her career (and, eventually, her life) was in constant jeopardy because of a homophobic law we now know as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."