Gay soldiers want to serve their country; policy makes it impossible
My friend Bridget Altenburg is livid.
Why? Because the Army recently dismissed another Arab linguist because he was gay.
I know, I know. A lot of us were angry about that.
But Bridget served in the Army herself for five years after attending West Point. She was a captain and an engineer. She led a unit of 35 soldiers in Bosnia, where they rebuilt bridges so that Bosnians could vote for their new government. She served as an aide to a three-star general in Kosovo, perhaps the only woman at the time who was serving as an aide in a hazardous fire zone.
Bridget loved the Army. She did good work there and she would have kept serving. But like the linguist, Bridget is gay. So like the linguist, Bridget needed to leave.
She wasn’t kicked out. She never told. She was never asked. The general she was an aide to likely knew she was gay and didn’t care. Her unit didn’t care.
But Bridget cared. She had come out to herself while serving and she just couldn’t lie any more.
So when her five-year commitment was up, she left. And the Army lost another good soldier.
Men and women like Bridget are the secret losses of the Armed Services. We hear about the egregious losses: The newest Arab linguist to be dismissed didn’t tell anyone he was gay; he was likely outed by a jealous lover.
But we don’t hear much about people like Bridget, whose good character makes them want to serve their country and at the same time makes it impossible for them to do so.
The obvious “Don’t ask don’t tell” losses, of course, are bad enough. Not just bad ridiculous. Silly.
Bridget points out that the U.S. soldier currently being held in Iraq for rape and murder was given a waiver for his past criminal history.
“So, you can join the military if you’re a criminal, but not if you’re gay? It doesn’t make sense,” Bridget says.
And she’s right.
She’s also right about the very real worry of military readiness. The armed forces have dismissed 11,000 soldiers through “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” about 800 of whom had critical skills 300 with crucial language skills, like that recently dismissed Arab linguist.
The military needs Arab linguists, of course, so it replaces the gay ones with civilians who don’t have as thorough a background check or any type of military commitment, yet have access to critical military information.
Makes you feel safer, does it?
More than 700 soldiers were dismissed for being gay last year alone in the middle of a war. When the armed services are coming up short of their recruitment goals. But those 700 heck, those 11,000don’t include people like Bridget, who couldn’t bear lying any longer.
“It makes no sense,” she says. “”‘Don’t ask don’t tell’ doesn’t make sense from a military readiness standpoint. It doesn’t make sense from a unit cohesion standpoint. Nothing disrupts unit cohesion like lying. Being in the Army isn’t like some 9-to-5 job. You bunk with these people. They know you. If you’re lying, they know.”
And the myth that gay men and lesbians would start hitting on people in their units?
“That hasn’t happened with any of our allies who let openly gay soldiers serve England, Israel. What, do legislators think that Americans are hornier than people in other countries?” Bridget asks.
Besides, she points out, the military has rules about conduct, which should apply equally to gay and straight people: There is no sex in the barracks. Superiors can’t date those under them.
“If the head of a unit hit on a soldier, he or she could be brought up on charges, not because he or she is gay, but because it’s against military law,” Bridget says.
There are plenty of ways, she says, to make sure this gay-sex-everywhere nightmare doesn’t happen. But that’s not what the law is about, of course. The law isn’t about sense. It’s not about unit cohesion. It’s not about military readiness.
It’s about discrimination. And while the military is discriminating, it’s losing people we need to fight for us, like that Arab linguist.
And it’s losing people like Bridget, who leave exemplary military careers because they are exactly the sorts of people the military wants men and women who aren’t comfortable lying.
“I don’t know why I was livid when I heard about that linguist,” Bridget says. “It’s the same stuff that keeps happening over and over. It’s a farce.”
Jennifer Vanasco is a syndicated columnist based in Chicago. Her columns can be read online at www.jennifervanasco.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, August 18, 2006.