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Becky Kanis

The Challenge of Service

by Denny Meyer

West Point graduate Becky Kanis is the sort of woman who is attracted to a challenge.  This is exactly the sort of person our armed forces seek out to serve as officers in leading our troops.  She was the responsible eldest of seven children in a Catholic family, a high school soccer athlete, and was encouraged to excel in everything that she did.  While she was selecting a college to attend, she was repeatedly cautioned against the difficulty of attending West Point; she was told that it was "miserable," and that military service might include having to fight an unjust war.  The more discouragement she heard, the more she knew that attending West Point was exactly what she wanted to do.  Her SAT scores were exactly what they sought.  A military academy could not have hoped for a better cadet.  She was offered early admission and a full scholarship.  West Point captured her imagination.  She wanted the education and adventure; she was attracted to the underlying value of contributing to something greater than herself along with the sense of service to American ideals and leadership.

Becky Kanis entered West Point in 1987, was commissioned in 1991, and served in the US Army Signal corps until 2000, leaving as a Captain.  During her service she earned a Meritorious Service Medal, two Humanitarian Service Medals, an Army Commendation Medal, an Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, a Senior Parachutist's Badge, and an Air Assault Badge.

While at West Point, she studied political science and was encouraged to think critically about American foreign policy.  She described her years at West Point as a "normal growing up process," during which she learned what it means to put ideas and people before her own self interest.  The longer she served in the military, she said, the more loyalty and responsibility she felt toward the lives entrusted to her as a leader.

Like any healthy young adult might do, she fell in love during her second year at West Point.  She fell in love with a woman.  Like many high achievers who have always been focused on excelling, serving, and leading, until that moment her personal orientation had not occurred to her.  She saw dealing with it as yet another challenge, wonderful as it was.  She was honest in reaching out to and having dialogue with trusted fellow cadets, most of whom fully supported her.  Like most who first come to realize themselves, she was naive at first; yet her colleagues saw only that she was happy and supported that.  Nevertheless, there was a brief investigation into her sexual orientation which led to naught, but could have resulted in her dismissal from West Point and banned her from military service.    She had to reconcile herself with her sense of integrity, spirituality and religious values; yet she did not see any conflict with continuing the challenge to prepare for and serve in America's armed forces.  One wonders what her grandfather, who earned a Purple Heart in WWII, would have thought.  Perhaps to him, the will to serve and sacrifice would have been more important than minor details about who one falls in love with.

In fact, she went on to serve exceptionally as a US Army officer for nearly ten years.  She began her career as a Signal Corps Platoon Leader during which she had two humanitarian service deployments - one to Haiti for peacekeeping and one to Kauai for hurricane relief.  During her second tour, at Ft. Bragg, she became the first female company commander in the 112th Signal Battalion, (Special Operations) (Airborne), charged with providing communications support to special operations forces, as well as later being company commander of a special missions unit.

She enjoyed leading her soldiers to support special operations forces on missions and operations.  She especially enjoyed fulfilling her duties as a jumpmaster, leading soldiers to jump out of airplanes..  She never felt that she was under a microscope, but she was careful in assessing whether or not to trust her colleagues with the truth about her personal life and gradually confided to a wider circle of military friends.  Over the years, several of her straight colleagues were so supportive that they attempted to introduce her to potential partners.  Her philosophy was to be as honest as possible with those who would have to trust her if they were deployed into battle.  In the current era, she found, people training and serving with her simply did not care about what her sexual orientation happened to be.

She found her work extremely rewarding in that she had achieved her goal of serving and leading. Only after she had matured in life and in her military career did she realize that she did not want to have to lie; "Its not about conduct," she said, "its about who I love."  And when she did ultimately find herself in a serious relationship that had to be hidden, she resigned to fully embrace life and love honestly.

The military's loss of this trained talented woman with ten years of leadership experience is nearly incalculable.  She has worked for the past six years, in leadership positions, for a non-profit agency dedicated to eradicating homelessness.  She has piloted a 'street to home' program, and has worked to transform street outreach programs to reduce homelessness.  "In my work," she noted, "I draw upon lessons learned during my military service to solve social problems."  Currently, as a 'Director of Innovations,' she deals in system level problem solving in social services, outreach, healthcare and other areas as she travels the country examining the gaps in cities which lead to homelessness.

In March she became the Chairwoman of Knights Out, an organization of LGBT and Straight West Point Alumni dedicated to repealing the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy and to helping West Point prepare for change when open service is permitted.

  2009  Gay Military Signal