Honorable Service

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Even though she was discharged from the military in 1987, for Lauren Thomas the emotion is still very raw. After honorably serving her country for almost eight years, and reaching the level of staff sergeant in the Air Force working with an anti-terrorism team, she was forced out because of her sexual orientation.

Thomas arrived at the Air Force eager to serve the country she loves. She lost 68 pounds before enrolling and was feeling good about life. As the descendant of Irish immigrants she grew up in Beverly, Ma, just outside Salem–Thomas felt the pride and sense of life’s possibilities that motivate many to join the military.

When she first found out that the military’s office of special Investigations was trying to get rid of her, Thomas drove to the back side of her base and thought about putting a gun into her mouth. She had planned to serve her country for another 12 years and retire to a career in law enforcement; the military was truly all she knew.

“You always maintained two different lifestyles,” said Thomas , who was stationed at Bergstrom before she was shipped off to Spangdahlem, in southwest Germany, where there was a push to get gays and lesbians out of the military with entrapment, bogus investigations and trumped-up charges.

One day Thomas arrived back at the barracks to find that her room had been ransacked. A woman whom Thomas  had dated wanted a relationship, but Thomas  did not; therefore, the woman turned them both in. Thomas was relieved of duty and her badge and gun were confiscated. After a short time, she was back on duty when they couldn’t prove the homosexual conduct charge. A week later, Thomas  mistakenly grabbed the wrong helmet when her team was on alert because of military work with Libya; the following week, she was arrested for theft of government property. Throughout this time, friends of hers would literally cross the street to avoid any association with her.

After six months of this, she had had enough. “I asked for an honorable discharge at that point,” Thomas said, noting that her record of good service and praise from her superiors should have put her in good standing. “When I flew to Dover, de to fill out the paperwork, on the page that every potential employer would read, it said ‘honorable discharge because of homosexual acts.’”

More than 38,000 people were discharged for homosexuality in 1987. The sheer loss of capital, in Thomas ’ case, the years of training plus the funding of her undergraduate degree and her MBA, is something that resonates to this day.

After a short stint working in security for USAA in San Antonio during the 1990s and later, in law enforcement because of her expertise in training drug- and bomb-sniffing dogs, she landed at Cisco Food service in San Antonio. At the time, Cisco was installing new warehouse management software, and Thomas  ended up working for EXE technologies. Whole Foods Market bought EXE’s software, and in 2000 they offered a job to Thomas, who had shopped at the organic grocer since 1982.

“Our main focus now is food traceability. The software impacts how things get to and from distribution centers to stores,” said Thomas, who currently works for the vice president of distribution. “Country of origin labeling legislation was passed last year, so our systems have been upgraded to handle that.”

In December of 2008, amidst a lot of work-related travel to and from Whole Foods Market’s ten distribution centers in the U.S., Thomas was searching for someone to watch house and take care of Fenway, her dog. A friend at work suggested a woman her named Shelley. It was a Saturday and Thomas, fresh from the golf course, was blown away by the beautiful, engaging woman at her doorstep.

“We started talking over wine,” Thomas said, describing herself and Shelley as “yin and yang.” “I asked her to dinner when I got back from Florida.”

Other than gardening, checking out live music and making regular trips to the golf course, Thomas is most passionate about her community involvement at Whole Foods Market. She developed a mentorship program ten years ago, whereby the grocer partners with local schools, in this instance with Mathews Elementary, to lower the high school dropout rate. Their approach sends volunteers into schools to work one-on-one with students.

“If we could get the high school dropout rate down to 35 percent in Travis County, it could save millions of dollars in social service programs,” she said, noting that the rate is currently almost twice that. “If you can get him or her to graduate high school, then they become tax paying citizens.”

Thomas is hopeful that “don’t ask, don’t tell” will finally be repealed this year. At the time of this writing, the House had voted to repeal the bill. “It’s time to stop compromising,” Thomas said. “If Congress won’t do it, I would expect Obama to sign an executive order.”

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