Do Ask, Do Tell

By Conant, Eve | Newsweek, October 4, 2010 | Go to article overview

Do Ask, Do Tell

Conant, Eve, Newsweek

Byline: Eve Conant

Many gay veterans aim to reenlist if the controversial policy is repealed. Will they be allowed to?

Joseph Rocha had always wanted to be in the military. He enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday, trained to become a handler working with explosive-sniffing dogs, and found himself part of a small, specialized unit in Bahrain. Banned by law from discussing his sexual orientation, he had a hard time explaining to his peers why he didn't party with them, or even join their bawdy conversations. He became an outcast. Fellow sailors ridiculed him for being gay. At one point they locked him in a dog kennel. Another time they forced him to eat dog food. In 2007 he was discharged after signing a document admitting his homosexuality. But if "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed--as many expect will happen in the coming year--Rocha says he wants to serve again. "You never lose that sense of duty and service and love for country," says the second-generation Mexican-American from Sacramento, Calif., who will graduate from the University of San Diego this spring. "It's a unique and beautiful thing most of us feel we were robbed of and would take the first chance to have it back."

At least 11,000 service members have been discharged under "don't ask, don't tell," the 1993 policy that bans gays and lesbians from serving openly. (The Pentagon has collected data only since 1997, so the number is likely higher, with gay-rights groups estimating the figure closer to 14,000.) Nearly 1,000 specialists with vital skills --Arabic linguists, for example--have been forced out, meaning millions of taxpayer dollars spent on military training have gone to waste. According to a 2010 report by the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA that focuses on gay legal and policy issues, the U.S. Armed Forces spend about $22,000 to $43,000 to replace each individual discharged under DADT, and the discharges continue today.

The cost to the individuals kicked out is impossible to measure. Many speak of shattered lives and reputations, skills lost, and of desperate years trying to regain financial and emotional security. Rocha worked for a time as a graveyard-shift security guard at a hotel in Los Angeles before saving enough money to enroll in college. None of that is very surprising. But like Rocha, many other former service members insist that if and when the law is repealed, they will quickly reenlist--if they are allowed to.

Early language in proposed legislation to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" stated that qualified former service members could reapply. "That language never guaranteed that they could automatically get back in," says Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. "But even language that weak got dropped before the bill passed the House." Language regarding a nondiscrimination policy was also eliminated. The Senate last week declined to take up even the watered-down legislation. Not a single Republican would agree to open debate on the bill containing the DADT language. GOP leaders said it was premature to deal with the issue, because a Pentagon working group is due to deliver a report on the potential impact of repeal on Dec. 1.

Sarvis, who has met with the Pentagon group, is hopeful that it will back repeal in some form. He says that when it comes to gay veterans, "the bottom line is that they would have to meet present-day requirements: age, physical condition, and proficiency in their military occupational skill." Other issues still under debate include rank, pay, and benefits. If former service members are allowed to return, should they come back at the same rank they had when they were expelled? Should they return at the same pay level, or perhaps be compensated in some way for lost years? No one knows how many gay vets might wish to return; estimates range from several hundred to several thousand. In one survey, 20 percent of gay vets who left the military said they would have stayed if they could have served openly, says Gary Gates of the Williams Institute. …

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