On the home front, the U.S. military's Operation Kamikaze

Robert A. Bernstein

April 24, 1991|By Robert A. Bernstein

AS THE FLAGS wave and crowds cheer, the phrase "valiant troops" has become a joyous oxymoron. So it is a particular irony that some 50,000 of our Persian Gulf heroes face a threat of official stigma and summary discharge.

The plight of gay and lesbian military personnel has been aptly summarized in a letter to President Bush signed by 40 members of Congress, including Bethesda Republican Rep. Connnie Morella. Lesbians and gay men, write the lawmakers, "have risked their lives for our country while being told in no uncertain terms that "if the Iraqis don't get you, the U.S. military will."

Their letter describes current Pentagon policy, which bars known lesbians and gay men from military service, as "archaic and destructive." The lawmakers urge the president to accord gay and lesbian troops the "same well-deserved respect" he has given to service personnel generally.

Current service policy, however, is contained in a terse six-word statement that is at hopeless odds not only with the letter writers' sentiment, but with the Pentagon's own research studies and performance ratings. "Homosexuality," it declares, "is incompatible with military service."

In fact, lesbians and gay men comprise an estimated minimum of 10 percent of service personnel, and studies hired by the Defense Department suggest that their fitness for military duty is in fact above average. As the 40 lawmakers put it, gays "always have and always will serve in the U.S. military -- the only question is when they will be allowed to do so with dignity."

Whenever the Pentagon has asked personnel experts for evidence to support its expensive anti-gay policy, the effort has boomeranged. The last time was in January 1989, when a group of independent researchers said it could find no evidence whatever to support the official bias.

Indeed, their report added, personality tests show that homosexual persons are likely to be even better qualified for military duty than their heterosexual counterparts.

Ironically, some of the best illustrations of the latter point have been brought to public light by the military itself, via prolonged litigation engendered by its kamikaze-like insistence on ridding itself of proven heroes.

One such instance is the celebrated case of Sgt. Leonard Matlevich. Matlevich was highly decorated for his leadership and bravery under fire in Vietnam, only to be rooted out after the war for being honest about his sexual orientation. His tombstone reads: "They Gave Me a Medal for Killing Two Men and a Discharge for Loving One."

More recently, until turned down by the Supreme Court in late 1990, the Army devoted nearly a decade to a perverse attempt to rid itself of another sergeant, Perry Watkins, with virtually perfect evaluations and ringing commendations from his superiors and peers. ("One of our most trusted and respected soldiers," wrote one commanding officer. "Without exception, one of the finest supervisors I have ever encountered," said another.

Or consider the example of Joseph Steffan, an Annapolis midshipman nonpareil -- battalion commander, holder of straight A's in performance and conduct and twice chosen to sing the national anthem at Army-Navy football games. Now he is suing for reinstatement: The Navy forced him to resign, because he is NTC gay, a few weeks before his scheduled honors-laden graduation from the Naval Academy.

Similar examples are legion. At best, moreover, the hunt is an exercise in futility. According to the Pentagon-hired study, only "a minute percentage" of the actual total of gay personnel are ever thereby identified.

The military's principal argument -- that the policy is essential to maintenance of efficiency and morale -- is the same discredited rationale once used to segregate black personnel. Today, of course, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Colin Powell, is black, and so were a large, disproportionately heavy number of his gulf troops.

But the full flavor of the bureaucratic folly is perhaps best captured by one of the more intriguing documents of military annals. It is a Navy directive urging officers to take action against lesbian sailors, while simultaneously describing the target group as paragons of professional dedication and mastery.

The incredible message was sent last summer by Vice Adm. Joseph R. Donnell, commander of the Navy's surface Atlantic fleet, to the commanders and officers in charge of more than 200 ships and shore installations. It said there are some special problems in rooting out lesbian sailors.

The reason? "Experience has . . . shown that the stereotypical female homosexual in the Navy is hard-working, career-oriented, willing to put in long hours on the job and among the command's top professionals. As such, allegations that this woman is a homosexual . . . may be dismissed out of hand or pursued half-heartedly."

Now there's a military predicament of baffling dimension. Be wary, warns Donnell in effect, or the Navy might be forced to retain and use some of its top talent.

Robert A. Bernstein, a former U.S. Department of Justice lawyer, E writes from Bethesda.

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