Rick Holmes: Gays in the military

Rick Holmes

He pretty much knew the answer, the officer told the generals, so he didn't ask. His subordinate knew the penalty, so she didn't tell.

It made things difficult. They were stationed together in Iraq, and she was his best non-commissioned officer. If she told him she was a lesbian, he'd have to choose between having her discharged from the military and breaking the law.

"Unit cohesion" has been a prime reason for keeping homosexuals from serving openly in the Army, conjuring up images of tough-guy GIs in a foxhole unwilling to turn their backs on a soldier they know is gay. But for this officer serving in a war zone, the panel of generals concluded, "unit cohesion was marked by the need to retain a qualified, meritorious lesbian service member."

So both of them lived with a lie, foisted on them by an act of Congress. Pressed by the generals investigating "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the officer said that had he been confronted with credible evidence of her homosexuality, he would have broken the law rather than break up his unit.

Breaking this particular law has become common among U.S. troops. A 2006 Zogby poll found that one out of four troops say they know someone in their unit who is gay, and nearly 60 percent of those know because the gay soldier told them.

The latest study of DADT, as it's known in military parlance, comes from the Palm Center at University of California, Santa Barbara. The bipartisan study group was comprised of four retired military officers, including the Air Force lieutenant general who was responsible for implementing the policy.

The officers found lots of problems with the policy. It prevents service members from getting the medical and psychological care they need, and even cuts them off from religious counseling. It prevents some service members from effectively performing their duties.

Besides, they conclude, Congress has no business setting personnel policies for the military. When President Clinton and the Joint Chiefs put DADT in place 15 years ago this week, they saw it as a temporary policy intended to accommodate the demands for non-discrimination in military service while prohibiting actions top military brass feared would undermine discipline and morale.

It was an ill-conceived compromise forced on a rookie president by, among others, the canny chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Colin Powell. Then Republicans in Congress, seizing on a culture wars issue, wrote it into law, freezing in place what should have been a transitional policy.

But the troops aren't frozen in place. Their attitudes toward homosexuality have changed, like those of their citizen peers. A Gallup poll found that 91 percent of young American adults say gays and lesbians should be able to serve openly in the military.

What undermines morale is forced dishonesty. The study group interviewed one soldier who was open about his sexuality. He said his co-workers didn't bother him or another openly gay soldier at all, but were tough on a soldier in his unit who was gay, but followed DADT to the letter.

"I asked the guys at work why they harassed T. when none of them harassed E. or me," the soldier said. "They said the problem wasn't the fact T. was gay, the problem was he was a liar. And to them, that meant he was a coward."

Don't Ask, Don't Tell, he said, is "a double-edged sword: If you follow it, you're mistrusted; if you don't, you play Russian roulette every day with your career."

Meanwhile, we've got an overstressed military fighting two wars. To meet the need for new recruits, the Pentagon is lowering its standards. The number of convicted felons let into the military more than doubled between 2004 and 2006, the study says. "Moral waivers" were granted to allow nearly 44,000 people convicted of serious misdemeanors, such as assault, to enlist during that same period, along with more than 58,000 enlistees known to have abused illegal drugs.

During that same time, nearly 800 people with skills considered "mission critical" were dismissed from the military under DADT. One study estimated that 4,000 gay, lesbian or bisexual troops a year would have been retained in the service had it not been for the policy.

If the policy is intended to maintain an all-straight fighting force, DADT is failing there as well. The Urban Institute estimates that 65,000 gay or bisexual troops currently serve in the active or reserve forces. There are about a million gay, lesbian or bisexual veterans.

Anyone who thinks gay people can't serve their country in uniform doesn't know the troops and doesn't know history. Anyone who thinks letting these service members be honest about their sexual preference will destroy unit cohesion, morale or readiness hasn't studied the experience of Israel, United Kingdom or other countries where the military has accepted openly gay troops for years.

The four retired officers who authored the Palm Center study join more than 52 retired generals who signed a statement last year calling for DADT to be repealed. Former top commanders, including Gen. Wesley Clark and Gen. John Shalikashvili, have said the military is now ready to let all soldiers serve without having to lie about who they are.

Whether this outdated policy will survive to its 16th anniversary depends on what happens in November. Barack Obama says he'd like to drop Don't Ask, Don't Tell, while John McCain says it's working just fine. What Congress has enacted, the next Congress can repeal.

This repeal is years overdue.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. ( He can be reached at