A year ago, Col. Cynthia Millonzi was looking forward to retiring from the Army National Guard. She planned to do so when she passed the 30-year mark in her military career and the 25-year mark in her civil service career.
She and her wife, musician Kit Holmes, bought a historic building in Michigan, planning to turn it into an arts venue. The couple married last year, following the repeal of the military’s anti-gay “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in 2011.
Colonel Millonzi, who served a tour of duty in Iraq, also came out within the military last year – because for the first time she legally could, and because she felt obligated to make her presence known as a gay leader proudly serving within the military. (L Style G Style profiled Millonzi shortly after she came out, a story you can read here).
But much has changed since then. Instead of closing out her career, today Colonel Millonzi is fighting for her job, her reputation, her income, and her retirement. National Guard colleagues made accusations that led to an investigation that found her guilty of defrauding the government of a year’s worth of work. On September 28, the Commanding Major of the Texas Army National Guard recommended her for separation from the Army National Guard on grounds of “substandard conduct and deficient character” which made her “unsuited for continued service in the Texas National Guard.”
Colonel Millonzi says the claims are unfounded, possibly provoked by her triumphant coming out as her career wound down. She says they are evidence of the Army’s pervasive culture of gender and sexual orientation discrimination.
But if the claims are found to have cause – they are still being evaluated and wending their way through the chain of command for a final decision–the health care and retirement benefits she earned over nearly three decades of service can be withheld from her, jeopardizing the future for her and her family.
I met with Colonel Millonzi for coffee on Halloween morning. Though it was the day before the official termination date set out by the claims against her, she seemed calm and focused, resigned to taking public the battle that she has been fighting privately for her entire career. I glimpsed a peace sign hanging from her car’s rear-view mirror.
“Here I am,” she said, dunking her biscotti in her coffee. “Even though potentially tomorrow I won’t have a job.” [Note: at the time of publication on Nov. 4, Colonel Millonzi was still in limbo about her status, with no news from her lawyer suggesting he’d heard nothing back yet from the military on her appeal.]
The proceedings are just the latest in a long line of assaults on women Colonel Millonzi says she has experienced and observed during her Army career. She says she was sexually assaulted during her Advanced Individual Training several months after she joined the Army, in 1985. And in every duty station she was in, she says she turned down offers from men promising promotions in exchange for sexual favors. In Iraq, Colonel Millonzi, who worked in personnel and HR roles, participated in meetings called to address “our own guys peeping into womens’ tents, into their showers.”
“I realized we were more afraid of our own guys than the enemy we were going to see,” she said.
She brings up these these examples to give a sense of the culture from which her current situation emerged.
This April she was up for a Chief of Staff role at Austin’s Camp Mabry. She didn’t get the job. She says the new Chief of Staff–with whom Colonel Millonzi admits she’s “never seen eye to eye”–soon ordered an AR 15-6, an informal investigation of her leave documents “and whatever else they could find” in her military record.
The brigadier general who supervised her wrote in her officer evaluation report that same year that Colonel Millonzi was “a dedicated, innovative and inspiring officer to those she serves”. In 2013, the year before, she’d been characterized in her evaluation as “respected by her peers for her knowledge, respected by her subordinates for her mentoring and leadership, and respected by her superiors for her dedication and mission successes”.
The investigation generated a 768-page report composed of statements from people interviewed about Colonel Millonzi’s character, and documents such as all of Colonel Millonzi’s requests for leave and requests for orders. It came to the conclusions that stood in stark contrast to the characterizations of Colonel Millonzi’s supervisors, determining that Colonel Millonzi had defrauded the government.
In September she was given five days to respond to proposed termination of her civil service job on November 1. She requested an extension, scrambled to locate and raise the $5,000 fee required to retain a lawyer, and submitted a rebuttal on the due date; she says her rebuttal has not yet been acknowledged.
At the end of September she says she was escorted from her office and had her phone and keys seized. Last month she continued to work from home, but was required to call in for work daily to a much lower-ranking E5-level sergeant, a requirement that within the military’s hierarchy-conscious context she says is degrading and insulting.
Colonel Millonzi said her hope is that the equal opportunity complaint she’s filed will be found to have cause, at which point it will be reviewed by National Guard members out of state. Besides possibly being targeted for being gay and female, she said her status as an outsider from the West Coast–she moved to Austin from Seattle in 2008–didn’t help her make friends among the close-knit Texas National Guard. So she believes that out-of-state review is important.
Ultimately, Colonel Millonzi said she is hoping for a settlement.
“I will gladly go,” she said. “I don’t want to go back to work in a place that treats me like this. But don’t affect my retirement.”
Although she says she’s seen the system fail many times, Colonel Millonzi is relying on that same system now to save her retirement.
“I’ve always followed the rules. And I’ve been surprised at how far this has gone. I keep expecting someone to speak up and point out that there’s no evidence. But it hasn’t happened yet.”
While outsiders might ask why more people haven’t come forward in her defense, she says the culture within the National Guard makes doing so risky.
“My staff can’t come out in support of me. They know it’s really hard to win these cases, and they have a lot to lose. Can I ask them to fall on the sword for me? Most people have a line they will go up to, but not cross. These people have careers and families.”
While she waits for her case to wend its way through the bureaucracy, she has begun speaking with the media, and has reached out to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston), whom she hopes will champion her cause.
“My battles during my career with the military have always been from within,” said Colonel Millonzi when asked her how she felt about the public turn her fight was taking.
“I would always stand up for other females they refused to promote. I’ve watched the corruption and the railroading of women go on for too long. I just can’t be quiet now. It’s not what leaders do.”
Colonel Millonzi’s partner and friends have organized a benefit on Sunday, November 9 at the Brass House jazz club from 4 to10pm. They hope to raise funds to cover her legal costs. Local bands, including Lisa Marshall, Deann René, Kit Holmes, Jean Synodinos and others, will perform and a $25 minimum donation is suggested, with a cash bar and full menu available. To learn more, visit http://kitkitchen.wix.com/causeforthecolonel.