Jenny Kopfstein joined the United States Navy in 1995 when she entered the U.S. Naval Academy; after graduation and further training, she began serving on the combatant ship USS Shiloh on March 15, 2000. She was assigned as the ship’s ordnance officer, which means she “was in charge of two weapon systems and a division of [fifteen] sailors.” When assigned to be the “officer of the deck,” she was “in charge of whatever the ship happened to be doing at that time,” and coordinating the ship’s training exercises of as many as twenty to thirty sailors.
Once assigned to the USS Shiloh, she discovered the Act made it impossible for her to answer candidly her shipmates’ everyday questions about such matters as how she spent weekends or leave time; to do so would place her in violation of the Act as she would necessarily be revealing the existence of her lesbian partner. She testified that having to conceal information that typically was shared made her feel as though other officers might distrust her, and that trust is critical, especially in emergencies or crises. The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Act’s prohibition on gay and lesbian servicemembers revealing their sexual orientation affects trust among shipmates, Kopfstein testified, because it causes people to “hide significant officer, which means she “was in charge of two weapon systems and a division of [fifteen] sailors.” When she overheard homophobic comments and name-calling by her shipmates, she felt she could neither report them nor confront the offenders, because to do either might call unwanted suspicion upon her.
After serving for four months on the USS Shiloh, Kopfstein wrote a letter to Captain Liggett, her commanding officer, stating she was a lesbian; she wanted Captain Liggett to learn this from her rather than hear it from another source. Captain Liggett did not begin any discharge proceedings after Kopfstein wrote this letter; he told her this was because he did not know her well and thought she might have written the letter not because she was a lesbian, but rather as an attempt to avoid deployment to the Arabian Gulf. Kopfstein continued to serve and perform her duties in the same manner she had before writing, but no longer lying or evading her shipmates’ questions about her personal life when asked.
When Liggett was leaving the USS Shiloh, to be replaced by Captain Dewes, Captain Liggett not only invited her to the farewell party at his house for the officers and their spouses, but made a point of telling her she was welcome to bring “any guest she chose” with her. Kopfstein and her partner attended the party, and Kopfstein testified that Captain Liggett and his wife welcomed them both warmly, as did everyone else present.
During the abbreviated course of her service, the Navy awarded Kopfstein many honors. For example, she was chosen to steer the USS Shiloh in a ship steering competition; after the USS Shiloh won the competition, she received a personal commendation from the Admiral who also ceremonially “gave her his coin,” a rare and prized tribute. When she returned from overseas deployment after the bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in February 2001, the Navy awarded her the Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, another commendation not routinely awarded. She also was awarded the Naval Expeditionary Medal after the Yemen deployment.
On September 11, 2001, Kopfstein was the ordnance officer on the USS Shiloh, in charge of all the weapons on the ship; the captain chose her to be Officer of the Deck as the ship was assigned to defend the West Coast against possible attack in the wake of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon. In October 2001, the Navy awarded her the Surface Warfare Officer pin, during a ceremony where her captain took off his pin and pinned it on her chest.
In evaluations completed before and after Kopfstein revealed her sexual orientation, her commanding officers praised her as the USS Shiloh’s “best [o]fficer of [the d]eck,” a “[t]op [n]otch performer,” “a gifted ship handler,” and the manager of “one of the best ship’s led and organized divisions,” and a “[s]uperb [t]rainer” with a “great talent for teaching other junior officers.” Captain W.E. Dewes, who was Kopfstein’s commanding officer at the time of her discharge, reported that “[h]er sexual orientation has not disrupted good order and discipline onboard USS SHILOH;” rather, Kopfstein was “an asset to the ship and the Navy” who “played an important role in enhancing the ship[‘]s strong reputation . . . . She is a trusted Officer of the Deck and best ship handler among her peers. Possesses an instinctive sense of relative motion – a natural Seaman.” Captain Liggett testified at her discharge proceedings that “it would be a shame for the service to lose her.” Kopfstein served in the Navy without concealing her sexual orientation for two years and four months before her discharge; during that time, to her knowledge, no one complained about the quality of her work or about being assigned to serve with her. She did not want to leave the Navy; she enjoyed the company of her shipmates and found her work rewarding. Two captains under whom she served came to the Board of Inquiry to testify on her behalf during her discharge proceedings. Nevertheless, she was discharged under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Act. Although she appealed the decision to separate her from the Navy, she did not prevail, and on October 31, 2002, she received an honorable discharge. She testified she “absolutely” would rejoin the Navy if the Act is repealed.
The Court found Kopfstein an honest, candid, and believable witness; she testified with modest understatement about her talent and achievements as a Naval Officer and with obvious sincerity about her desire to rejoin to fulfill her original commitment.
[Update, 09.13.10 1100: It was brought to my attention that when bringing this over from the transcript the first time, there was an unintended line break and a repeated sentence in the second paragraph. I have updated to correct that.]