RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) - A former Air Force officer testified Friday that he did not violate the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy but was discharged for being openly gay after a service member snooped through his e-mails.
Former Air Force Maj. Michael Almy took the witness stand to support a federal court lawsuit filed by a Republican gay rights organization challenging the constitutionality of the military's ban on openly gay troops.
The non-jury trial has forced the federal government to defend a policy that President Barack Obama is pushing Congress to repeal.
Lawyers for the Log Cabin Republicans say they don't want to wait on Washington and are seeking a federal injunction to immediately halt the policy. Attorney Dan Woods has argued the policy violates the rights of gay military members to free speech, due process and open association.
The group says 13,500 military members have been discharged because of the policy since 1994.
"Don't ask, don't tell" prohibits the military from asking about the sexual orientation of service members but requires discharge of those who acknowledge being gay or are discovered to be engaging in homosexual activity, even in the privacy of their own homes off base.
Almy said he had been honored as a top communications officer in the Air Force for his leadership skills in running an exemplary unit that helped maintain control over the vast majority of Iraq's air space during the war.
After his tour, he returned to his base in Germany, where he was called to his commander's office and questioned about a dozen personal e-mails he said the Air Force discovered after a service member searched through his computer in Iraq. Almy said his commander tried to force him to admit he had violated the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
"We went round and round for approximately 20 minutes," Almy testified.
Almy said he never admitted to the military he was gay and was careful to keep his personal life separate from his professional one. Still, after the meeting, Almy was told he was relieved of his duties.
"I was completely devastated," Almy said. "I drove myself home. I took my uniform off and I curled up in the fetal position on my bathroom floor like a baby and bawled for several hours." Almy decided to hire an attorney and fight his commander's decision. He collected more than a dozen letters from superior officers and other colleagues extolling his work, and sent the material to the Air Force discharge authority, asking to be retained.
He was honorably discharged in 2006, ending a 13-year career as a decorated officer.
Almy refused to sign his discharge papers that stated he was being fired for "homosexual admission."
"I could not sign that because I had not admitted anything to the Air Force," Almy said.
Lawyers for the Log Cabin Republicans say the policy hurts the military's effectiveness by getting rid of talented officers. The attorneys also cite studies showing openly gay service members do not affect unit cohesion.
Government attorneys say the "don't ask, don't tell" issue should be decided by Congress, not in court.
Scott Simpson, a Justice Department lawyer, said during the trial that the case of one discharged officer was irrelevant to proving the policy hurts the entire military.
He questioned Almy's claims that a service member snooped through his private e-mail on a government-issued computer, saying Almy himself has acknowledged that it was routine for service members rotating onto a base to search the computer of the member they were replacing.
Simpson pointed out some of the e-mails were sent to a captain, and asked Almy if he was trying to solicit a male service member subordinate in rank to engage in "homosexual activity."
"E-mail is not a reflection of actual conduct," Almy replied, adding the man was in Germany at the time he was in Iraq.
Government attorneys noted that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has tightened regulations so service members who admit being gay to doctors, lawyers, chaplains and mental health providers cannot be discharged. Those conversations are now considered privileged. Even so, Almy said it was still possible to be discharged under the new rules.
Former Navy officer Jenny L. Kopfstein testified that she knowingly violated "don't ask, don't tell." She said she wrote a letter to her commander acknowledging she was a lesbian because she was conflicted about having to lie about her sexual orientation.
Kopfstein said she was torn "between the 'don't ask, don't tell' directive to be silent and even lie and the Navy's core values" of honor, courage and commitment.She was expected to resume her testimony Tuesday.