A high-ranking midshipman who resigned from the Naval Academy after being accused of homosexual activity appealed to federal court in Baltimore yesterday against repaying the government the $82,000 cost of his education.
Tommie Lee Watkins was a battalion commander and president of the Class of 1998 when he resigned one year shy of graduation, after academy officials began an investigation into allegations of homosexual behavior, prohibited in the military.
The Department of Defense established in 1994 that the government cannot recoup money from midshipmen who leave the academy because they are gay.
The Navy has argued that because Watkins resigned without expressly stating that he was gay, he must repay the free tuition and board the government picks up for students at the service academies.
Watkins says academy officials forced him to resign and that he therefore should not have to pay.
The Board for Correction of Naval Records found this year "error and injustice" in the way the Navy treated him.
The board recommended that Watkins not be held liable for the costs, finding that "even though his letter of resignation does not specifically mention homosexuality ... it is clear the charges against the petitioner were based mainly on alleged homosexual misconduct."
The board noted that the academy expelled more than two dozen students in 1994 for cheating and another for using drugs, two offenses that go to the heart of the rules at the academy, and yet those former students did not have to repay the government.
Assistant Navy Secretary Carolyn H. Becraft rejected the board's recommendation in March, reiterating the argument that Watkins' resignation did not say he was gay.
She also ruled that the Navy's previous decisions in similar matters were irrelevant.
"What kind of message does that send?" Watkins asked yesterday from his home in Florida. "You can lie, cheat and steal, or use illegal drugs, and we will waive your recoupment, but God forbid you be gay, and even though our policy contradicts it, we will demand you pay us," he said.
"This is blatantly prejudicial and unjust treatment," he said.
Watkins, who once aspired to be a Navy pilot, said he is now a math teacher and ordained Baptist minister. He also said he would be willing to pay the debt by serving in the Navy, as many former academy students have done, but that the Navy prohibits gays from joining.