'Don't ask, don't tell': Can military handle a repeal of gay ban?
Repealing 'don't ask, don't tell' could have serious implications for some parts of the military. But critics of the law say the Pentagon is ready to embrace gays openly.
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“The opposition to racial integration ran very high – in the 70th or 80th percentile,” noted top Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson in congressional testimony. By 1953, 90 percent of Army units were integrated, while buses in Montgomery, Ala., were not.Skip to next paragraph
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In the current case, however, the military has not led social change.
“America has moved on,” Mullen said. “America’s military is ready, by and large, to move on as well.”
A former West Point cadet who has been watching the debate with particular interest is 1st Lt. Sarah Smith, an active-duty Army engineer who requested a pseudonym to protect her identity.
During her time at the academy, she says, there was a “strong underground network” of fellow students who were also gay or lesbian. Still, she was “paranoid” about people finding out about her homosexuality. “There was a very real possibility of me losing a thing I loved.”
Smith says the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was a frequent topic of conversation among cadets at West Point: “We all felt deep down that it would be repealed some day since it’s an incredibly discriminatory policy, but we knew there wasn’t much we could do.”
Today, after deploying to Iraq, she remains in the military, and many of her close colleagues know about her homosexuality. This includes senior noncommissioned officers in her unit, as well as a first sergeant whose family frequently invites Smith and her girlfriend to dinner.
“They have completely embraced me,” she says. “When the policy would require them to report me, they put themselves and their career on the line.”
Hopkins says he found similar behavior among his colleagues once they learned he was being investigated for being gay. In fact, many knew about his homosexuality before he fully acknowledged it to himself, he adds.
While had early inklings he might be gay, under the rules of “don’t ask, don’t tell” being gay “just didn’t mesh” with the Army life that he loved.
“Basically, the way I viewed it was that I had pretty high expectations for myself, and if I wanted to do that, I had to be straight,” Hopkins says.
What mattered most to Hopkins’s colleagues, he says, was that he did his job well. In the course of the 14-month investigation into his sexuality, he heard from “a bunch of old infantry soldiers” who he served with as a company commander in Iraq. “They reached out and said, ‘Hey, we figured you were gay, but you were the best company commander we ever had.’”
This view was borne out by the Pentagon survey, Gates and Mullen suggest. Ninety-two percent of respondents said that once they worked with someone they believed was gay, the unit’s ability to work together remained “very good, good, or neither good nor poor.”
And even if there are pockets of resistance, they add, it is not wise policy to give troops veto power over top-level decisions, such as unit integration or going to war. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona has disagreed. He has said he doesn’t doubt that “this capable, professional force could implement a repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ if ordered to.” The question, he said, is whether that is a good idea.
To some supporters of a repeal, the greater question is how many quality troops the military is losing.
Hopkins, for his part, was asked earlier this year to leave the military. Now a graduate student at Georgetown University, he received a call last month from a former battalion commander of his, asking him to return. But he has mixed feelings, comparing the Army investigation to “a 14-month-long divorce.”
“The Army was what I chose over relationships,” he says. “And it comes with all of the emotional baggage and pain that a 14-month divorce would engender.”