In Army town, gay ban is fiery issue Fort Benning soldiers and veterans oppose lifting military's restrictions

January 29, 1993|By Ann Lolordo | Ann Lolordo,Staff Writer

COLUMBUS, GA. -- The joke at the Chester S. Harrison American Legion Post 35 yesterday went like this:

"Do you know what the President did this morning?"

"No, what?"

"Enlisted men don't have to salute officers anymore -- they just have to blow them kisses."

Retired World War II veteran William "Teal" Allen delivers the punch line in a slow Southern drawl to the hoots of his fellow Legionnaires at the bar. And Mr. Allen voted for Bill Clinton.

But in this southwest Georgia community, home to more than 47,000 active, reserve and retired military, the buckle of the Bible Belt, the president's proposal to lift the ban on gays in the military amounts to fighting words. The response, in the community and on the base at nearby Fort Benning, is strong and swift:

"I will not lay my life on the line for [a homosexual]. When you have someone that is doing something that is deviant in society, how can you depend on them?" asks a Vietnam veteran who retired from the service two years ago.

"You're in the shower, buck naked, soaping up . . . and somebody says,'Buddy, you want help?' That's unacceptable," says an Air Force pilot on temporary assignment to this Army base.

"If this has worked for 50 years . . . where does Clinton get off? Clinton was never a grunt. He never lived in close quarters," says a 22-year-old Army lieutenant.

But when the rhetoric subsides and the adrenalin stops pumping, some of these same soldiers and veterans will admit that they have served with gay members of the military who have fired the same rifles, lugged the same equipment, flown the same combat missions, honorably and without incident.

The response then, especially among today's soldiers, is: "What you don't know won't hurt you."

Yet many of them can't seem to overcome the notion that lifting the ban against gays in the military will give homosexual soldiers the freedom to "come out" and announce their sexual status.

Take 1st Lt. Michelle Hannon. Aware of the strong, anti-gay feeling among the infantrymen she commands, the 26-year-old officer worries about the safety of a gay soldier.

"The guy's literal health would be in danger," says Lieutenant Hannon.

And while she would feel uncomfortable rooming with a lesbian soldier, Lieutenant Hannon says, "There's got to be a place for them [gay soldiers], because they are already here. They do their job and they do their job effectively."

At Fort Benning, the self-described "Home of the Infantry," as many as 8,000 soldiers are in training for the Army's most rigorous and elite jobs -- the paratroopers who jump from the belly of a plane at 1,200 feet and glide over enemy lines; and the Rangers, always on call, who defend the country from behind enemy lines.

The military's stamp on this riverfront city is indelible. Fort Benning, the largest employer in Columbus, pumps about $242.9 million into the economy annually.

The Chamber of Commerce has a retired colonel on staff solely to help draw more military business to town. And, this city of nearly 180,000 boasts the largest American Legion post in the state.

A ride along Victory Drive, a main access road between Columbus and Fort Benning, attests to the presence of young, muscled soldiers in town.

jTC Tattoo parlors and pawn shops compete with car dealerships and motels with "military" rates along this busy commercial strip. Soldiers shop at specialty stores that offer dozens of uniform insignia and "sewing while you wait."

There are barbershops that cut the "high and tight" (a flat-top with shaved sides) or "the 1-2-3" (the same, with an intermediate strip) and go-go bars that feature Luscious Taras and Juicy Tanyas.

Thorny questions

The military's apparent resistance to accepting gays in the armed forces appears to mirror the political and religious bent of Columbus.

Sprinkled throughout the conversations of older veterans were repeated references to "faggots" and "queers." Only younger veterans and soldiers appeared to be comfortable with the term homosexual or gay.

On post or off, in uniform or out, the reaction to the proposal is pretty much the same.

Patrick Kenny, a retired colonel who served at Fort Benning, says the president's decision "sounds like a very simple thing -- no discrimination against homosexuals."

But implementing that decision raises a host of thorny questions on such things as a soldier's benefits and rights, Mr. Kenny says.

Is a gay soldier's partner entitled to housing, medical care, survivor benefits? If a gay officer asks to check a recruit's bruises from a strenuous day in basic training, would the touching be misconstrued?

"Do I think it could work? Probably," Mr. Kenny says, of the president's decision. "Am I in favor of it? Absolutely not."

Spec. Roger M. Walker is a Ranger-in-training, part of an all-male contingent of 50 soldiers.

'To each their own'

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