Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

They Won't Stop Asking

Magazine article The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)

They Won't Stop Asking

Article excerpt

The human wreckage from "don't ask, don't tell" grows with each passing year

Jill Szymanski is a military recruiter's dream. By the end of her 12-year stint in the Navy, she had earned a master's degree in trauma and critical care nursing, paid for by the federal government, and oversaw the duties of about 1,000 nurses around the world. But tired of living in the closet, Szymanski told her commanding officer that she is a lesbian in August 1998, triggering an honorable discharge.

Today, Szymanski, 34, is happily employed as a cardiac-program manager for a health maintenance organization that has antidiscrimination protections for its gay and lesbian employees and provides domestic-partner benefits. But she remains bitter about her military experience. In December she mailed a Christmas letter to her former colleagues explaining why she felt compelled to abandon her promising military career.

"For years I figured that if I had a perfect record, I'd be safe in the Navy even though I was a lesbian," she says. "But when I saw gay people being discharged, I wondered how I could continue to give 150o/6 to an organization that could turn its back on me overnight. I just couldn't live that way anymore. It's just not how you treat valued employees."

Szymanski's experience is hardly unique, according to a report compiled by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a Washington, D.C. group that provides information and assistance to military personnel. SLDN's survey, which was scheduled to be released in mid March, found the human wreckage of "don't ask" to be extensive and growing. The Pentagon discharged 1,145 enlistees in 1998 for being gay or lesbian, an increase of 148 over the previous year. Since 1993, when the policy was adopted, annual gay discharges have almost doubled--the opposite of the policy architects' intention.

Even as the military is discharging highly qualified personnel like Szymanski, Pentagon brass are complaining that they can't find new recruits. In February Army secretary Louis Caldera argued that the Defense Department should be allowed to recruit high school dropouts to make up for a shortfall that could reach as high as 10,000 in 1999. The Navy alone had 6,900 unfilled positions last year. Pentagon officials have blamed the slow influx on everything from the strong economy to post-Cold War politics, while omitting any reference to the rapid increase in gay-related expulsions.

"The military has run out of excuses as to why the numbers keep going up," says Michelle Benecke, co-executive director of SLDN, referring to the escalating ousters. "The service chiefs have testified about having a hard time retaining skilled people. But then they turn around and kick out a large body of well-qualified people who want to serve. It doesn't make any sense." (James Turner, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, declined to comment on the SLDN report.)

The Pentagon has long acknowledged that discharges have soared under "don't ask, don't tell." But it has also insisted that the increases are primarily due to service members' volunteering their sexual orientation, a violation of the "don't tell" part of the policy. Advocates for gay service members, however, blame all-too-routine violations of the "don't pursue" provisions by military commanders.

While Szymanski's case bears out the Pentagon's contention, Gabrielle Buffer's does not. Butler enlisted in the Marine Corps in January 1998 after friends in the Maryland state police told her she would make an excellent marine because she was "hard-core. …

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