After soldier's death, Pentagon redefines `don't ask, don't tell'

Military officials accused of permitting harassment, driving gays out of service

August 14, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon ordered revisions yesterday in its "don't ask, don't tell" policy aimed at curbing complaints that military officials have failed to prevent harassment of homosexuals and have engaged in aggressive legal investigations of suspected gay and lesbian troops.

"I've made it clear there is no room for harassment or threats in the military," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said in issuing the revised guidelines.

Under the new guidelines, all military personnel will receive mandatory sensitivity training outlining the military's anti-harassment policies. The training will begin in boot camp for recruits and continue in refresher courses throughout their careers.

In addition, the guidelines impose restrictions on how military officials may conduct investigations that lead to the dismissal of troops for homosexual conduct.

Unlike past investigations conducted by lower-ranking officials, senior legal officers must be consulted before an investigation into alleged homosexual conduct.

The Defense Department instituted in 1994 the "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" approach, effectively allowing gays and lesbians to serve in uniform as long as they do not reveal or discuss their homosexuality.

Under the 5-year-old policy, the military isn't supposed to investigate sexual orientation unless "credible information" surfaces about a person's homosexuality. The guidelines also prohibit investigators from soliciting information on sexual orientation from those who report that they have been harassed or threatened. Such complaints must result in "the prompt investigation of the threat or harassment itself," the guidelines say.

The new guidelines have no impact on that policy and are designed to clarify military behavior affecting gay and lesbian troops.

Since Pentagon officials imposed the policy, homosexual rights advocates have said that military officials have given their troops little guidance in implementing them. Rather, some civil rights activists argue, the military has stepped up efforts to root out homosexuals from its ranks.

Stacey Sobel, senior staff attorney for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a Washington group that defends gay and lesbian military personnel, called the new guidelines "a good first step." But she said it is too early to know whether everyone in the military has gotten the message.

In fact, she said, gay rights activists remain concerned because similar guidelines were drawn up by Pentagon officials more than two years ago but were not issued to the services. Meanwhile, she said, military officials have continued to drum out suspected gay and lesbian personnel.

According to figures released last year by the legal defense network, 67 percent more homosexuals were discharged from military service in 1997 than were released in 1994 before the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was implemented.

Sobel and military officials admitted that the regulations were expedited in the wake of recent complaints by gay rights activists, who alleged that Army officials failed to properly investigate the death last month of a soldier at Fort Campbell, Ky.

Pfc. Barry Winchell, 21, was bludgeoned early July 5 by someone wielding a baseball bat. He died a day later. Army officials have arrested Pvt. Calvin Glover, charging him with premeditated murder, and Spec. Justin R. Fisher, charging him with four offenses related to Winchell's death.

Gay rights advocates said that their investigation into Winchell's death suggests he had been harassed by fellow soldiers who suspected him of being gay and that Army officials have been reluctant to investigate his death as a crime provoked by anti-gay bias.

"The guidelines come in the wake of Pfc. Barry Winchell's murder," said Sobel. "It's unfortunate that something so serious had to happen before they were released."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 8/14/99

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