“Just a soldier.”
This is how a young gay infantryman in Afghanistan described himself in an e-mail I received earlier this year. He’s a first-termer, looking forward to getting out of the Army in two and a half years. I imagine he looks death in the face most days, but along with his infantry buddies, he says he “keeps drivin’ on.”
I thought of this brave young man when I read a recent Washington Post editorial criticizing the Pentagon for forcing gay soldiers to serve during this time of war. The reality of this gay soldier is very different from the perception proffered by the Post and much of the rest of the media.
The Post editorial was based on a new report from the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a gay activist group that monitors the Pentagon’s compliance with “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy that allows gays to serve in uniform so long as they do not declare their sexual orientation. It also prohibits commanders from asking troops about their sexual orientation.
The report reveals that discharges of gays are down for the second year in a row. Discharges dropped from 1,273 in 2001 to 906 in 2002, and again to 787 in 2003.
In a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t twist of irony, the activists — who for years complained about the high rate of gay discharges — are up in arms because so few gays are being discharged. They cite a recent University of California study showing gay discharges always decrease during wartime, with the Pentagon forcing gays to serve in combat — when cohesion matters most — only to turn around and claim gays undermine military effectiveness during peacetime.
The activists think the past is repeating itself. But they fail to consider another possibility for the recent decline in gay discharges, one that focuses on the bravery and loyalty of gay troops rather than Pentagon hypocrisy.
Perhaps the reason fewer gays are being discharged during this war may be that gay troops — like the infantryman in Afghanistan — are choosing to remain in uniform to serve in combat and do their patriotic duty, not because the Pentagon is forcing them to remain in the military.
Before don’t ask, don’t tell, large numbers of gays were kicked out against their will after being ensnared by gay-hunting military investigators. However, the military no longer seeks to purge gays from its ranks. According to the SLDN report, gay and lesbian troops no longer are targeted for investigation or “inappropriate command-directed asking and pursuits” — a positive development.
As an attorney who worked for SLDN for several years and represented hundreds of gay and lesbian soldiers, I can confirm that most current gay discharges result from troops making “coming out” statements, not from witch hunts.
In their zeal to keep the heat on the military, however, activists do a disservice to gay troops by assuming the recent drop in gay discharges reflects a cynical Pentagon attempt to retain them during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Activists have overlooked the possibility that more gays are serving because, now that the bullets are flying, more are choosing to remain in uniform to do their duty.
Consider, for example, the case discussed in the SLDN report of Army Capt. Austin Rooke, who worked for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force before the recent fighting in Iraq.
When the Army called Capt. Rooke back to active duty to ship him overseas, he easily could have avoided additional military service by revealing his sexual orientation (because he was an intelligence officer, the Army knew Rooke worked for a gay organization). But he did not, and the activists — in yet another ironic twist — are criticizing the Army for allowing Rooke to serve.
Rooke, like many gay and lesbian Americans who are answering the call to duty during this time of crisis, served because he wanted to. He is quoted in the media as saying, “In my mind, I had a duty I was going to carry out.”
Another gay Army reservist activated for Iraq echoed Rooke’s commitment, saying, “I knew I was gay when I went in. I can’t use that as an excuse to get out.”
There are many others with similar stories to tell.
“Just a soldier.” This is how most gay troops view themselves. Their service and sacrifice for our country is proving the fallacy of the gay ban and will, on one fine day, be the reason why the ban is lifted.
Jeff Cleghorn, a former Army officer, directs the Military Education Initiative,www.military-education.org. He may be reached at email@example.com.