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Troops speak out on gays serving openly

Feb. 15, 2010 - 03:48PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 15, 2010 - 03:48PM  |  
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When Adm. Mike Mullen stunned the Senate Armed Services committee earlier this month by saying it's time to stop kicking gay service members out just for being gay, he also acknowledged that the Defense Department is working in a data vacuum on this issue.

"I do not know what the impact will be, and I do not know what the implementation requirements will be," Mullen said. "There's very little objective data on this."

Now there is.

In the most comprehensive survey yet on service members' attitudes about gays in the military, more than 3,000 Military Times readers contacted randomly by e-mail and through fliers placed in random newsstand copies late last fall offer a clear glimpse about attitudes and experiences in today's military.

Respondents answered questions about their own sexual orientation, their attitudes about the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy, who should get to decide whether to change the law, and their level of concern about how a potential change could affect morale and unit cohesion.

The majority of troops are generally happy with the current policy. But opposition to a change is dropping steadily.

The percentage of respondents opposing repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" fell to just 51 percent, a decline of 12 percentage points since 2003. The percentage favoring repeal, meanwhile, rose over the same period 6 points, to 30 percent, among active-duty readers of Army Times, Air Force Times, Navy Times and Marine Corps Times. The survey was conducted from Nov. 11 through Nov. 30.

Military Times also interviewed about two dozen career service members for this article, including 11 who identified themselves as gay. We agreed not to identify them in order to protect their careers.

Repeal or not?

Perhaps no issue is quite as divisive as whether or not the law should be changed.

"I think it's time to repeal the law," said Air Force Maj. Mike Edinger, an 18-year veteran of space and missile operations. Married with children, Edinger said he used to oppose open service by gays.

"As you get older, your views change and are reflected by things that you experience in life," he said. "I had met, through my sister a number of years ago, a group of gay men that are friends of hers. They're all civilians, but … I got to know these guys. It was the first time I had ever met anybody that I knew was homosexual, and it really struck me how they're just like anybody else.

"And so then that starts making me think, why should they be treated any differently in terms of … service in the military?"

Army Maj. Christina Bembenek, a military intelligence officer, disagreed. "I think the law is fine as it is," she said. "It's not a perfect solution, but better than opening it up."

But troops interviewed for this article were generally united on two facts even before Mullen's Feb. 2 pronouncement: There are already gays serving in the military, and change is coming.

"Taking a look at where our nation is going. I think it's inevitable," said Marine Lt. Col. Alex Chatman, a pilot with 21 years of service. Chatman opposes homosexuality on religious grounds and believes sexual preference is a choice rather than genetic. "It's not whether I like it or not it's just a fact."

Among active-duty survey respondents, 2.1 percent identified themselves as gay or bisexual, while 3 percent said they were "unsure" or declined to answer. Women were three times more likely than men to report being gay or bisexual (5.4 percent to 1.7 percent).

Those figures are higher than in the society at large, according to an August 2009 Congressional Research Service Report on "don't ask, don't tell," which estimated 1.6 percent of the population is homosexual.

"I think people would be amazed at the number of people in the military who are gay," said a gay female Army first sergeant, who has deployed to Afghanistan twice. "I personally know a one-star, all the way down to a private. The gamut is so wide. But there really is no stereotype."

Most active-duty survey respondents, 57 percent, believe a member of their unit is gay. But of those, only 14 percent could say for sure the individual told them directly, for example.

The vast majority said they did not report the person's sexual orientation to their chain of command. When asked why not, three in 10 said, "I don't agree with the law excluding gays from the military." Four in 10 respondents cited other reasons, including one who said, "I didn't ask, the individual didn't tell."

A choice or genetics?

Proponents of repeal say it's a fundamental issue of fairness. Edinger called it a civil rights issue.

"Fifty years ago, we had this same issue with race, and all the same arguments were used, you know, to justify racism in this country," said Edinger. "I think we're … a lot better off now because we got past that."

Army Maj. Brian Robinson, an armor officer, agreed. "I was born black, didn't choose it," he said. "I believe [gays] are born that way. I don't believe they get socialized."

Service members' responses were similar when separated by age or rank. The Military Times survey showed opposition to open service was slightly lower among the junior enlisted paygrades of E-1 through E-4 whose ranks account for nearly half of the armed forces as well as among racial minorities.

But the difference in responses by gender were stark more than twice as many women as men (55 percent to 27 percent) support allowing gays to serve openly.

The survey showed noticeable differences by service as well. Marines were the most likely to oppose open service by gays, according to the Military Times survey, with 64 percent holding that view, compared with 52 percent of soldiers, 48 percent of airmen and 45 percent of sailors.

Marine Maj. Eric Thompson, 35, a land domain chief with U.S. Northern Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., said overturning the current ban could disrupt unit cohesion, camaraderie and teamwork.

"I just don't think we need to experiment with what happens when we have openly gay soldiers in the barracks and in the trenches," Thompson said.

Job performance, unit cohesion

A common concern of many service members, borne out in polls, is that sexual orientation affects job performance. But the service members interviewed by Military Times generally said it does not.

"I don't care about your sexuality," said Navy Ensign Mario Tarver, now in flight training at Vance Air Force Base, Okla. "If you can get the job done, load up my plane so I can go perform the mission, I have no problem with you."

"I would think in the vast majority of cases, 99 percent, there would be no impact," said Navy Intelligence Specialist 1st Class David Rister, who worked with a Special Forces unit in Iraq in 2007 and now is assigned to a Hawaii-based P-3 squadron.

Bembenek disagrees. "It's one thing when everybody's in uniform, you're at work … if this guy's gay, no big deal," she said. "But when he walks in with his boyfriend in civilian clothes to the restaurant that you're having your [unit] dining-in at, that's a very different thing."

Proponents of repeal point out another "job performance" issue: Many gays separated from service against their will have critical skills, including translators and intelligence analysts valuable commodities in the current wars.

"Take two or three years to build this person, and then we say, ‘Because you're homosexual, you know, we can't take you anymore,' " said Robinson. "That's a national security thing to me. We need a lot of these people for those type jobs."

Robinson's support for repeal goes back to his days as a lieutenant, when he was part of a 12-member team manning an observation post in Macedonia in 1996. They were out on the edge, self-sustaining, with resupply every three weeks. So they cooked their own meals.

But only one troop, a sergeant, could cook and he was part of the patrol rotation. "We wanted that guy to be the cooking guy, and I got with my sergeant and I said, ‘What do you say we make old Sgt. X kind of the permanent cook?'Ÿ" Robinson said. "So he doesn't have to go on patrol, and when we come back, we eat well. And everybody was like, yeah, why didn't we think of this three months ago?"

The sergeant's cooking skills, however, were not the only thing that made him stand out in the minds of his teammates.

"We thought this guy was homosexual" because of the way he carried himself, Robinson said.

"Everybody kind of thought it, but nobody ever really talked about it. But I asked myself, as a lieutenant, ‘What would I think if he told me he was gay?' This was before people were talking about this openly in the military. This was a tank battalion.

"And I thought I'd probably be uncomfortable with it for a minute, and then I'd be like, oh, yeah, OK."

He said it was a nonissue with everyone else in the unit as well because the bottom line was that "he was an effective soldier."

A gay female lieutenant colonel in the Army Medical Corps agreed. "You can't afford to be that darn picky," she said. "You've discharged thousands of really good soldiers. That's tragic. You've discarded them … because you don't like what they do in their personal life."

"I consider that argument complete bunk," said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Brendan Mulvaney, detailed to the Army Directed Studies Office, a think tank. "Perhaps people who were dismissed were linguists. Does that mean we have no other linguists? No. Does that mean there are not straight linguists that we [could] hire? No."

Privacy and repeal

Survey respondents' level of comfort with openly gay troops in their midst decreases as their personal proximity to gays increases. About half said they're comfortable sharing a housing area, for example, but only about 30 percent were OK with gays using the same showers.

"If you know somebody is openly gay, it's certainly going to make you more uncomfortable," said Navy Chief Engineman Jeremy Mullis, 37, assigned to the cruiser Cape St. George in San Diego. "What a person chooses to do with their own time is their own business, but I don't think I'd want to shower with them."

Military gays acknowledge that fear, but say it is overstated.

"With my peers, it's never been an issue for me personally with getting romantic interests with anyone," a gay Marine captain said. "I was with the same [unit] for three years they were like my family. Me looking like that at them would be like looking at my brother in that way. It just isn't going to happen."

"Just because you're gay doesn't mean you're attracted to every male," said a gay Marine sergeant at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

But a gay Navy commander-select based in San Diego said the issue is more complicated because of the nature of the typical gay lifestyle.

"It's shockingly promiscuous," he said. "Men are sexual beings. … I walk down the street and I'll look at guys, just like a straight man will walk down the street and look at a woman. The difference being, we're not sharing the same berthing as that woman. That's definitely an issue. And there's no easy solution for that."

A mass ‘coming-out'?

When respondents were asked to list the three most challenging issues that the military would face if current law and policy were repealed, the top two were "reducing harassment against openly gay personnel" (51 percent) and "reducing violence and hate crimes against openly gay personnel" (38 percent).

While some service members interviewed agreed that a mass "coming out" by military gays following repeal could cause a backlash within the ranks, most felt this wouldn't happen.

"There's going to be a lot of people … kind of holding their breath for a while," said a gay Navy lieutenant commander based in San Diego. "We're not going to have a mass coming-out."

But if the law does change, he said he wants to take the lead and "be that person to come out and show people that it's going to be OK."

Not the gay Navy commander-select. "If repeal happens, I'm not going to come out," he said. "It's just that black cloud lifted off my shoulders."

"I probably would continue just being like I am," said a gay Air Force captain. "I'm not going to put a big rainbow sticker on my desk. I'd put pictures of my partner on my desk."

The gay Army first sergeant said she wouldn't come out either. "Maybe I'm just too old and have been hiding for too long," she said. "Even if they said today that it's fine … people are still going to be guarded. Society in general is a lot more open to it. But I think there's still too many good old boys in the military system that will not accept it."

Some cite moral and religious reasons to keep the ban in place, and many of those feelings are strongly held. Military gays acknowledge this and agree that, in certain units, those feelings could erupt into violence if repeal became a reality.

"The unit that I'm in right now, I think so," said the gay Marine sergeant. "Very macho, ooh-rah Marine Corps. I'm sure we'd have some kind of confrontation."

"I suspect that … there will be a period of adjustment, potentially violent," said Army Lt. Col. Tim Duffy, a 25-year veteran and military policeman. "If not undertaken very carefully, I suspect that there will be instances of violence … that will lead to loss of life on some scale. And, you know, that's already happened in some cases."

Not all agree. "My nephew is serving in Afghanistan right now, and he's on his second tour," said an Army Reserve sergeant first class with 17 years of service who asked not to be named because he works as an undercover federal agent.

"He was in Iraq when I was there. He's 11 Bravo, infantry. … And I asked him … this question, and he said that he couldn't care less. He's 23, so I think … a lot has to do with what age you are, what time you grew up. I think people now are a little bit more … tolerant."

While Robinson favors repeal, he expressed concern over military bearing and what he feels is the potential for "flamboyant tendencies" on the part of gays. "I don't want that," he said. "I don't care if you're gay, straight or anywhere in between."

Open flaunting of sexuality, proponents of change admit, could be a red flag for those vehemently opposed to change.

Military gays say that's why change would have to be accompanied by a commitment to making it work that started at the top.

"If Congress just flips a switch, that's going to be bad," the Air Force captain said. "Just an overnight change in policy is going to result in several people being hurt."

The way ahead

One thorny issue that the military would face if current law was repealed would be how to deal with family benefits, allowances and entitlements for gay couples who legally marry in the handful of states that allow such marriages.

Survey respondents were almost evenly split on this issue, with 43 percent saying gay married couples should not get the same family benefits as heterosexual couples, and 40 percent saying they should.

Similarly, commanders would have to consider the ramifications of gay couples living in housing areas. What happens to a gay married couple if the state to which they're assigned does not recognize gay marriage and legal matters need to be attended to?

Then there's the issue of unmarried billeting. "Assuming that people are now free to identify themselves, assuming that some of them would, then what do you do?" Mulvaney asked. "Who do you make uneasy? Do you put them by themselves? Do you put them with other men who are not homosexuals who may be opposed to it? And if they're opposed to it, do you have to find people in your unit who are not opposed to it? How do you integrate it?"

"It's going to touch a lot of different areas, personnel, information management-wise, where you're really going to have to go and look at the effects of how you distribute [cost-of-living allowance], Basic Housing Allowance, a little bit of everything," said Air Force Master Sgt. Charles Mercurio, an electronic warfare systems and protocol specialist with 19 years of service who favors repeal.

Most of those interviewed said leadership buy-in, from the top down, would be critical to successful implementation of repeal.

Leadership would need to be "out there showing that yes, you can be gay and a Marine, and there's not a conflict between them," the gay Marine captain said.

"I would put it out to all my officers, all my chiefs and senior enlisteds to keep an eye out," the Navy commander-select said. "If someone looks to be getting hazed … then squash it. Immediately. Which is what we do right now anyway with any kind of racial, sexual harassment."

"As long as the leadership kind of takes the bull by the horns and says, this is the policy, there's going to be no harassment, no discrimination … I think it'll go fairly smoothly," said the gay Navy lieutenant commander.

Like other leaders interviewed, Chatman said there's no question about whether he would enforce the change even though he strongly opposes doing so. "Either you're all in or you're not," he said. "Sitting there in front, knowing I have to execute a policy, I will execute it to the best of my ability."

Some worry about how commanders themselves will be evaluated if problems erupt.

"We have climate assessments throughout the military, and commanders are fired if morale is bad," noted recently retired Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Bob Angeli, who served as a career information manager. "So should a commander be held liable because his morale is bad because he has gay members in his unit?"

Timing a change

For at least some of those favoring change, timing is an issue: They say that in a time of war and economic hardship, the Obama administration has more important things to worry about.

"I don't think gays in the military make the top 10 [concerns]," said Angeli, who leans toward repeal. "It needs to be looked at and reviewed."

"As a company commander, this is a whole other set of issues that I just would not need, on top of everything else especially if it's not something that's causing a problem in the unit anyway," said Bembenek, who recently spent 27 months in Iraq. "I see it as more of a distractor than anything else."

The gay male Army lieutenant colonel said he recognizes that politically, proponents for change have nothing to gain.

"I don't know why anybody would really want to push it," he said. "Is this the biggest issue facing the nation right now? Probably not. But, if you're going to do it, just do it."

Jun Lu, Michael Costello and Melissa Stephens of the American University Statistical Consulting Center assisted with the survey and data analysis for this report.

Related reading

* Stressed by a double life

* Research more likely than repeal this year

* Surveying the military

* ‘Don't ask' debate heats up online

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