Don't ask, don't tell, don't leave

March 23, 2007|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- How much harm do gays and lesbians cause in the ranks of the military? Not much, it turns out.

Judging by the latest discharge figures, the military's policy is really: "Don't ask, don't tell. Just keep fighting!"

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made more news than he wanted to last week when he called homosexual acts "immoral" during a meeting with the Chicago Tribune's editorial board.

The general expressed mild regret for divulging his personal views instead of sticking with the official Pentagon line. But he stopped short of an apology to all of the gay and lesbian military personnel whose service and sacrifices he had insulted.

That's a shame, when you consider another less-ballyhooed news development that came to light that same week: the release of the latest Pentagon figures on how many service personnel have been discharged for reasons connected to their being gay or lesbian. In 2006, it turns out, gay-related discharges fell to 612 from a peak of 1,273 in 2001. That continues a revealing trend: Gay-related discharges rose sharply after the "don't ask, don't tell" policy went into effect in 1994, when such discharges numbered only 617. But after the 9/11 attacks, that figure fell to 906 in 2002 and 787 in 2003.

The return of war brings about a sudden upsurge in tolerance among troops and commanders for their fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines (the Pentagon's numbers do not include the Coast Guard). As a practical matter, bigotry toward gays and other groups fades the closer one gets to the front lines of combat.

Also, Steve Ralls, a spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, observed that gays and lesbians in the military felt as big a patriotic boost after 9/11 as other Americans. That resulted in fewer homosexuals trying to leave the military and an upsurge in those trying to get in - or get back in.

"In the weeks following 9/11," he said, "we were flooded with phone calls from gays and lesbians who had been dismissed under the `don't ask, don't tell' law. They wanted to know if there was any possible way they could re-enlist and be part of the response to those attacks."

Twelve of them are named in a case the organization filed in December 2004 to have them reinstated by the armed services.

It is painfully ironic, at a time when the military is facing recruiting and retention troubles, that gays and lesbians who want to serve are not officially being allowed to serve, even when they work in such valuable areas as translation and weapons technology. Unofficially is another matter.

"We know for a fact that there are gay and lesbian service members who are serving openly," Mr. Ralls said. "Their commanding officers are fully aware of their status, and neither their commanders nor their fellow service members care one iota."

As a Vietnam-era Army vet, that revelation does not shock me. There's nothing new about the presence of gays or lesbians in the military. Military ranks reflect the diversity of the civilian world.

A chorus of gay activists has called for General Pace to resign because of his remarks. Mr. Ralls has another view: "Ironically, General Pace has probably done more than anyone to move us toward repeal of the law. He pulled the veil off of this policy."

General Pace did reveal that the policy is less about military cohesion than personal feelings, which are changing over time. A younger, more tolerant generation is moving up, Mr. Ralls said.

A Zogby poll of Iraq and Afghanistan combat vets in December appeared to back him up. It showed almost three-quarters said they were comfortable serving with gays and lesbians. Members of Congress are renewing pressure to reopen the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Instead of calling for General Pace's head, maybe gay activists should give him a medal.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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