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Posted on Wed, Nov. 23, 2005
U.S., UK differ over gays in military
BY RICHARD WHITTLE
The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON - Stacy Vasquez is a former Army recruiter who was booted out for being a lesbian in 2003 after 12 years in uniform. Tommy Cook's tour in Army intelligence ended the same year at Fort Hood, Texas, after he acknowledged he was gay. Both were in jobs the Army regards as crucial these days.
If Vasquez and Cook had been in the British army, they would have fared differently. Since 1999, the United Kingdom has allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly. Starting next month, some gay couples will even be eligible for married housing on British bases.
The U.S. military, by contrast, drums out hundreds of gays and lesbians each year under the 1993 law known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" - even as an Army stressed by major deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan falls thousands short of its recruiting goals.
And while gay-rights advocates cite Britain's experience as evidence they could serve openly without disrupting the military's social fabric, neither Congress nor the Pentagon show any interest in repealing the statute.
"I know of no move along those lines - none," Army Secretary Francis Harvey said earlier this year.
Congress based Don't Ask, Don't Tell on a finding that allowing gays to serve openly could disrupt the military's unit cohesion by creating tensions among soldiers and eroding morale.
"People in the military are forced into situations with an extreme lack of privacy, in the barracks, in the foxhole and so forth," said Peter Sprigg, vice president for policy at the Family Research Council, a conservative research and lobbying group that focuses on family issues. "It is unfair to put people in the military in a position of forced intimacy with people who may be viewing them as a sexual object."
More than 10,000 service members have been discharged in the dozen years since the law took effect, replacing a previous outright ban on gays in the military.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell allows gays and lesbians to serve, but only if they refrain from "homosexual conduct" - defined as "a homosexual act, an admission or statement of homosexuality, or marriage or attempted marriage between persons of the same gender."
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found in February that 757 of the nearly 9,500 service members expelled during the first 10 years of the law held "critical occupations." They included 54 Arabic speakers, for example.
"The war in Iraq highlights the shortsightedness of discharging Arabic linguists who happen to be gay," wrote Lt. Col. Allen B. Bishop, a West Point professor who argued for the law's repeal in a March Army Times commentary.
Gay-rights advocates say the military actually has eased its enforcement of Don't Ask, Don't Tell under the pressure of wartime manpower needs. The number of those discharged for violating the law has declined sharply since President Bush declared the global war on terror, from 1,227 to 653 annually.
"If you look at the decrease in numbers, they start immediately after Sept. 11, 2001," said Steve Ralls, a spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund, a group that seeks the law's repeal. "Whenever there is a conflict, the numbers go down."
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Brian Maka disputed that conclusion, saying it was "not based on scientific evidence" - and such evidence would be impossible to find.
"How do you know why someone wasn't discharged?" Lt. Col. Maka said. "The numbers are what they are."
Critics say Don't Ask, Don't Tell deprives the military of thousands of patriots who want to serve their country, even if that means risking their lives.
Vasquez and Cook hold themselves out as examples. They are among 12 ousted service members represented in a federal lawsuit filed in Massachusetts by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which aims to overturn the law as unconstitutional and reinstate them in the military.
Vasquez, 32, joined the Army in 1991 after graduating from high school in Denton, Texas. She became a paralegal and served in Germany, South Korea and various domestic stations until May 2001, when she was assigned recruiter duty back in Texas.
When she joined the Army with her mother's permission at age 17, Vasquez said, "They did ask me if I was a homosexual in my contract, and I honestly answered `no.' During my first enlistment I was even married to a man."
Only after 1997, the year her marriage ended, did she begin to "identify as a lesbian," she said.
By 2003, she had risen to the rank of first sergeant and was one of her station's top recruiters. But "I was called into my commander's office one day and I was told that a coworker's wife had seen me kiss a girl in a gay bar," Vasquez said.
The commander, she said, offered her a choice: she could either face a criminal charge of indecent conduct or write a statement declaring herself a lesbian and receive an honorable discharge.
Citing the lawsuit, Vasquez declined to say whether she kissed another woman that night at Sue Ellen's, a lesbian club in Dallas. But "I did write the statement," she said, to avoid a criminal charge.
Army spokesman Paul Boyce declined to comment on her case but said "generally speaking" a homosexual act that could lead to a discharge "involves much more than just an allegation of kissing someone of the same sex."
Vasquez, now a paralegal for the service members' defense fund, said she wants to resume her Army career and believes she's needed.
In an effort to overcome recruiting shortfalls that left the active-duty Army 6,667 troops short and the Army Reserve 4,626 below its goal for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the Army has added 2,166 recruiters over the past two years.
"I would like to still be serving my country," Vasquez said.
If not for his discharge, Cook might have served in Iraq. His unit, the 312th Military Intelligence Battalion, was there from January 2004 to February 2005.
Cook, 23, grew up in Lake Jackson, Texas, and joined the Army in April 2001. By October 2003, the specialist was in line for promotion to sergeant when the 312th went to the Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., to prepare for Iraq.
For three weeks, he worked in a Humvee and lived in the field with two sergeants at the Mojave Desert base, Cook said. One day, after an "obviously gay" soldier walked by, Cook said, one of the sergeants remarked that "if he ever found out anybody on his team was gay, he would kill them."
Cook said the sergeant's remark chilled him. "I just did not want to be working in a confined area with live ammo with this man," he said.
Soldiers who feel threatened can confidentially inform the military police or inspector general, Army spokesman Boyce said. The service has "very strong policies against harassment for any reason involving sexual orientation, race, religion, language, ethnic background," he said.
But on the service members fund's advice, Cook said, he wrote a letter to his company commander describing what had happened and asking for a transfer.
Accused of looking for a way to avoid going to Iraq, Cook was told he would get a discharge that would leave him ineligible for many veterans benefits. He appealed and won an honorable discharge.
Cook, now a nursing student at Lake Jackson's Brazosport College, insists he was willing to serve in Iraq. "I never asked to get out," he said.
A number of the soldiers he served with had long known that he was gay and were unperturbed. The night before his discharge, he said, "the company commander and my first sergeant had a surprise party for me at a gay bar" in Temple. About 30 of the 40 or so members of his company showed up, he said.
"They gave me a tiara," Cook recalled.
Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., has introduced a bill to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and has 100 co-sponsors, but there is no sign Congress will pass it.
Uniformed military leaders are equally uninterested.
"The leadership has said, `We're not touching that with a 10-foot pole," said retired Army Lt. Gen. Dan Christman, a former superintendent of West Point and a key planner of the 1991 Gulf War.
"They're comfortable with the law the way it is, and they really don't see anything to be gained," he said.
The Army discharged 325 soldiers under Don't Ask, Don't Tell in fiscal 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available. All active duty services discharged a total of 653. The Army and Army Reserve fell 11,253 recruits short in fiscal 2005.
Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University who came up with the idea of Don't Ask, Don't Tell and sold it to the Clinton administration in 1993, said any gain in gay recruits might be offset by losses in heterosexuals wary of serving with them.
Lawrence Korb of the pro-repeal Center for American Progress, a research group founded by former aides to President Bill Clinton, said the British example "could be really significant" for the U.S. debate.
The British military had a ban on gays when the U.S. law was passed, Korb recalled, and one argument was that, unlike other militaries that had allowed gays and lesbians to serve openly, U.S. and British armed forces were more likely to be housed in close quarters because both deploy forces overseas and have nuclear submarines.
Fifteen of the NATO alliance's 26 member militaries have no ban on gays serving openly, as is the case with Israel's much-vaunted armed forces. But the British experience since 1999, when the European Court of Human Rights forced the U.K. military to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, "shows that all of the concerns people had just don't amount to much," Korb said.
Defense analyst Michael Codner of the Royal United Services Institute, a research group closely tied to the British military, said the reaction among heterosexual troops to the removal of the ban had been "less dramatic than expected."
"There was remarkably little fall-out from the U.K. decision," Codner said by telephone from London. But that doesn't mean gays are accepted in all areas of the military, Codner said. "If you're a paratrooper and you're gay, you probably keep your head down, whereas in other units, such as the medical services, it's less important," he said.
Vasquez said she was certain that many of her fellow soldiers knew she was a lesbian long before her discharge.
"Service members have moved with society," she said. "They see a need for every single able-bodied American that can serve their country to have the ability to do so."