Killing ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’

Building Support Among GOP Around Armed Services’ Needs

On March 2, Rep. Martin Meehan, an influential Massachusetts Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, introduced legislation in the House that would make it legal for gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces.

At a press conference, prominent gay supporters of the new bill gathered near him, Meehan announced that widespread bipartisan support exists on Capitol Hill to undo the controversial Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) law, enacted during the first Clinton administration that prohibits gays and lesbians from serving openly, mainly because lawmakers consider the ban to impact negatively on the nation’s military readiness, with armed forces stretched thin by the ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

“The strain on our military personnel is one of the key national security challenges facing this country today,” Meehan said. “In a time of war, it is outrageous that our military continues to discharge thousands of experienced and dedicated service members—many with critical skills in the war on terror—for reasons that have nothing to do with their conduct in uniform or their willingness to serve their country.”

The congressman’s legislation, co-sponsored by other Democrats on the powerful Armed Services Committee as well as other lawmakers, arrived on Capitol Hill just as the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that said over the past ten years the American military has spent close to $200 million dollars enforcing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

“This GAO figure is based on what it costs to train a first year enlistee grunt,” said Steve Ralls, communications director for the Service Members Legal Defense Network (SLDN), an organization that provides legal support to gay and lesbian military personnel. “They don’t include specialized training like language or code breaking, all of which is much more expensive.”

Before the ground invasion of Iraq in 2003, the military discharged gay and lesbian linguists fluent in Arabic, Pashto and other languages spoken in nations considered potential security threats after the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Opponents of DADT immediately seized upon the report’s release to criticize the policy as an exorbitant mistake, both in terms of the dollars cited and the talent that it deprives the nation from employing in the war on terror.

“The conventional justification for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been that allowing gays to serve undermines military readiness. Now we have the numbers to prove that the policy itself is undermining our military readiness,” Meehan said in a press release.

The GAO report based its estimate on the costs provided by the different branches of the armed forces of recruiting and training the personnel who replace the soldiers discharged under the ban. However, the report’s authors admitted that the overall cost of implementing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is likely much higher because the figures do not include estimates from the Reserves, National Guard or Coast Guard. Nor does it include costs associated with investigation and discharge procedures because the Department of Defense does not record those figures.

Ralls also noted that the GAO did not consider discharged officers and what it costs to replace personnel promoted up in the chain of command.

More than 300 language specialists with “some skills in an important foreign language such as Arabic, Farsi, and Korean” had been discharged since the ban’s inception in 1993, a much larger number than originally reported. Additionally, more than 400 soldiers with “critical occupations”—what Ralls called “specialized training”—including code-breakers, divers, combat controllers and image interpreters had been dismissed in the same ten years.

“The other hidden cost is what it took to replace all the well-trained people who simply left the military because they were tired of living a double life,” said Denny Meyer, president of the American Veterans for Equal Rights New York chapter. “People who would have made a career of it.”

The Marine Corps did not provide an amount spent on training replacements for discharged soldiers.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a military personnel advocacy group, said that the GAO and gay organizations are missing the point of the report.

“This could have been avoided by simply reinstating the question that was asked of all recruits before Clinton instituted this policy,” she said, referring to the “homosexual” question put to all prospective recruits before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was passed following Clinton’s failed effort to lift the ban by executive order. “Because that question is not asked a number of people have been lead to believe that they are eligible to serve in the military,” Donnelly said.

The report arrives at a time when the ban has come under increasing attack from gay rights groups, legislators and even high-ranking military personnel.

Recently, the Department of Defense released figures that showed discharges under the policy have fallen by almost half since the beginning of the war on terror, proving to some that the Pentagon knows gays and lesbians do not degrade unit cohesion.

“[The number of discharges] don’t absolutely prove gays and lesbians don’t degrade unit cohesion. We won’t know that until years from now when the history is written,” said Aaron Belkin, the Director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities at UC Santa Barbara. “What they suggest is that the Pentagon knows lifting the ban won’t degrade unit cohesion.”

A group of retired military officers, all of them brigadier generals or higher, and a rear admiral, have endorsed Meehan’s bill. In 2003, on the tenth anniversary of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’s passage, two of them, Admiral Alan M. Steinman and Brigadier General Virgil A. Richard, told The New York Times that they were gay and were coming out to urge the ban’s overthrow.

“At a time when our military is hurting for personnel we are discharging people just because they are gay,” Steinman told Gay City News in an interview. “Gays and lesbians have served in the military and they haven’t been disruptive. To tell them they can’t serve openly and honestly is just wrong.”

But the bill’s passage will not be easy, even according to SLDN, for whom this day was another step in a lengthy lobbying effort. In a Republican-led Congress while troops serve abroad under fire, the bill faces an uphill fight. “It’s the first shot in the battle to begin working with Congress and the military to overturn the ban,” said Ralls.

Since his freshman term in 1993, Meehan has sought to overturn Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and two of his colleagues on the Armed Services Committee indicated that while Republican support for the bill’s passage out of committee might seem unlikely, the troop shortage forced by the ongoing insurgency in Iraq is really changing some minds and transforming the debate over gays in the military from an ideological and political issue into a readiness issue.

“In the past it may have been dead on arrival, but even now Republicans are acknowledging that there is military readiness issue at stake,” said Rep. Steve Israel, a Long Island Democrat, who serves on the Armed Services Committee. Israel went on to say that he expects there to be a “hospitable environment on the committee and on the floor” for the bill.

The lawmaker whose district includes the Defense Language Institute, where some of the expert linguists have studied, also supports Meehan’s legislation. In a written statement, Rep. Sam Farr, a California Democrat, said that over the last five years “the military discharged 20 Arabic and 6 Farsi linguists based on their sexual orientation. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, military linguists, particularly those with Arabic and Farsi skills, are critically needed in the global war on terrorism.”

A press spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter, the California Republican who chairs the House’s Armed Services Committee, did not return a telephone call seeking comment.