Dan Choi vs. Dept. of Defense

Dan Choi has become a poster-boy for the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the U.S. Armed Forces. He’s been kicked out of the military for his stance as an openly gay officer, but his dispute isn’t over.

Mr. Choi received a $10,000 bonus in 2008, and now the Dept. of Defense wants him to pay $2,500 of it back.

According to a statement from Eric Durr, speaking on behalf of the New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs:

Lt. Choi joined the New York Army National Guard in 2008, and agreed to serve in the New York Army National Guard as an office for three years in exchange for a $10,000 affiliation bonus. So he was given $10,000 extra, on top of his regular Army National Guard Reserve pay, for joining the National Guard, because we need young officers. Under the terms of this, which occurred in March 2008, he agreed to repay the part of the bonus that he had not yet discharged an obligation for, if he failed to satisfactorily complete that assigned term. And among those was involuntary separation for violating regulations. He signed it, like everybody does.

Mr. Choi disagrees, as evidenced by his Twitter announcement on the subject:

Well, I do owe the Army a few thousand $ for my DADT discharge (and refuse to pay a cent.) Or it could be for DC direct actions.

I’ve made no secret of my opposition to the U.S. military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. I’m glad that it’s on the way toward being repealed, and I think it’s a damned shame that Mr. Choi’s service as an officer was cut short prematurely. However, I have to admit that I’m on the Defense Department’s side in this dispute.

Before my readers freak out on me, here’s why: Mr. Choi knew that DADT was the military’s policy about people who were openly gay or lesbian. He accepted the $10,000 bonus knowing that if he did not finish the three year tour, he would be contractually bound to pay a portion of that bonus back. And he chose to come out of the closet anyway, very publicly daring the military to end his service early.

I don’t think he should’ve been forced out of the military, but the man knew he was gay when he joined the Army National Guard, and he knew he was gay when he accepted the $10,000 bonus in exchange for three years of service. And he came out of the closet anyway.

These sort of bonuses are common in the private sector, too — sign-on bonuses, retention bonuses, and so on are a great way to recruit and keep valuable talent. But if you leave the company before the agreed upon period of time, or if you take a deliberate action that you know can result in being fired, you may contractually owe them a portion of that bonus back.

The principle holds true in Mr. Choi’s case, too. He agreed to serve three years in exchange for the bonus, and he deliberately got himself thrown out before that three years was up. Courageous as his stance may have been, in this case he owes a legitimate debt.

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