'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.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Veteran Evelyn Thomas is arrested after handcuffing herself to a fence at the White House in Washington November protesting against the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy on gays in the military.

It was in Iraq that Army Capt. Jonathan Hopkins learned he was to be promoted to the rank of major one year early – a considerable achievement.

It was also no surprise. In his career as an infantry officer, Hopkins had earned three bronze stars. As a high school student, his score on the Pentagon’s aptitude test for military service was so high that recruiters encouraged him to apply to West Point. He did, and he graduated fourth among his peers in the Class of 2001. Hopkins then deployed once to Afghanistan and twice to Iraq, where the platoon he led helped secure Kirkuk in the war’s first push.

Yet Hopkins remembers the day he received word of his potential promotion as the worst of his life: It was also the day he learned that he was being investigated for being gay.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” had already shaped his life. The number of people he had told he was gay was “in the single digits,” and he had virtually given up dating. “What if someone asked what I did over the weekend?” he would ask himself. “There is no way to keep your job without lying or covering things up.”

Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen went to Capitol Hill to “strongly urge” Congress that no member of the US military be subject to such treatment again. They called for a repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” – the 1993 law that bans openly gay men and women from serving in the military.

They do not deny that there could be problems. A survey released Nov. 30 on attitudes toward gays in the military – one of the largest surveys the Pentagon has ever conducted – found 48 percent of Army combat units and 43 percent of Marine combat troops expressed concern about gays serving openly.

But given good leadership and time to put in place a new policy, the US military stands “ready to implement the repeal,” Mr. Gates said.

Added Mullen: It is the right thing to do “for our nation, our military, and our collective honor.”

The heads of the service branches were less than sanguine about the prospect in testimony one day later, however. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey said repeal would “add another level of stress to an already stretched force” and be “more difficult for the Army than the report suggests.”

Marine Corps commandant Gen. James Amos concurred. Assimilating openly gay troops into the “tightly woven fabric” of combat units could lead to “disruption” on the battlefield, he said. The service chiefs all emphasized, however, that they would implement the change if so ordered.

The confidence Gates and Mullen expressed in the military’s ability to do that lies both in the Pentagon survey results and in historical precedent. According to the survey, more than two-thirds of those in uniform do not object to gays and lesbians serving openly, Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee Dec. 1.

Moreover, senior military officials note that the military has lifted controversial bans before. In 1948, the military integrated African-American troops, who had previously served only in segregated units often tasked with hard labor.

“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.

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.”

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