Troops get training on end of ‘don’t ask’

May 8, 2011

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — Marine Maj. Daniel Bartos was looking for a volunteer. Standing in a windowless classroom with slides running behind him, he was explaining to about 40 Marines what will happen after the ban on gays in the military ends. He presented a hypothetical scenario for someone to tackle.

Cpl. Brooke Cardona, 22, shot her hand in the air, then stood to answer.

What would she do, Bartos asked, if she saw two male Marines in a mall food court “kind of petting each other, putting their arms around each other, kissing each other?”

“That’s a very good question, sir,” Cardona said. “They’re not in a work environment, sir, so I can’t exactly tell them that that’s not appropriate.”

“You’re on the right track,” Bartos said.

“When you see these situations, think of it as two members of the opposite sex,” he told them.

He then asked a corporal what he would do if he heard two junior Marines joking in the locker room about showering in front of a gay colleague.

“It’s inappropriate in any situation, whether that Marine is homosexual, heterosexual, black, white, we’re all Marines, we’re all professionals,” the corporal said.

Bartos smiled. “You’re spot-on,” he said.

Similar sessions have been occuring on aircraft carriers and military bases, including in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a law passed by Congress in December, the Defense Department must instruct the more than 2 million men and women in uniform about the end of the policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” before President Obama can officially repeal the almost 18-year ban on gays serving openly in the military.

The process began in February with training for chaplains, military lawyers and civilian Defense Department workers, followed by courses for commanding officers (including Bartos) and then the rank and file. Pentagon officials said the process has cost just $10,000 to develop instructional materials. The goal is to underscore that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect.

This was Bartos’s second training course and although both started slowly, he said, what’s gotten Marines engaged is “how it will affect their daily lives.”

Obama’s certification could come before the training sessions end, because it won’t go into effect until 60 days after he issues it. White House and Pentagon officials wouldn’t say when he will issue the order, but close observers of the process expect it to come before Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates retires in late June.

Advocates for and against ending the ban have paid special attention to the Marines, who reported a higher level of concern about serving alongside gays in a Pentagon-sanctioned study released last fall.

Although most of the 400,000 troops surveyed said they had served with someone who they believed to be gay, and reported few, if any issues, between 40 and 60 percent of Marines were either concerned or predicted a negative reaction if the military started enlisting gays and lesbians. No other service reported such high levels of concern.

Nonetheless, “we still step out smartly to faithfully implement this new law,” Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, told the Marines in a video at the start of their training session. Last year, Amos voiced some of the strongest skepticism about lifting the ban.

Although the ban is ending, Bartos reminded the Marines that the federal Defense of Marriage Act will still prohibit same-sex partners from earning most military benefits. A base commander may one day permit a gay couple to live together on base, but he said partners might not enjoy the same access to recreational or dining facilities as heterosexual couples.

The Marines listening to Bartos — most in their 20s — sat quietly, upright and stone-faced in blue plastic chairs, sipping occasionally from water bottles or cans of Red Bull. There were no smirks or eye-rolls as he discussed issues such as “consensual sodomy” or potential religious opposition to homosexuality.

Members of OutServe, a network of anonymous active-duty gay service members, said they have heard of very few occasions of instructors or troops joking about the instructional information.

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said, “It’s remarkable how so far, the training and education is really a nonevent.” SLDN is representing troops discharged under the current policy.

When Bartos asked for follow-up questions, most came from Juan Vega, 25, a Navy combat medic from Houston.

“Life happens,” Vega said. “What if a military member was in an accident at work and they were in the emergency room or admited to the naval hospital, which would be on base. Their civilian partner doesn’t have a military ID card due to the Defense of Marriage Act. How would that person get on base in an emergency? Does anyone have a plan for that?”

“Just because they’re not entitled to specific beneficiary entitlements, you could still put a same-sex partner on a record of emergency data,” Bartos replied.

Later, Vega turned to Lt. Cmdr. Marcus Lawrence, a chaplain with the Convocation of Anglicans of North America, who was also attending the session. Vega asked him whether a same-sex couple could attend religious services on base together.

“I’ve never issued a test to figure out what a person’s sexual orientation is,” Lawrence said. “Anybody is more than welcome to attend a service.”

But Douglas Lee, who is responsible for selecting and endorsing chaplains with the Presbyterian and Reformed Joint Commission on Chaplains and Military Personnel, said once the policy changes, “many chaplains will be wondering if their career is going to be in jeopardy because of what they might say.”

“They’re already assisting homosexuals and all sorts of people who come their way,” Lee said. “My concern is the challenge will come from the homosexual lobby in some interesting ways that could affect the opportunity for our chaplains to freely exercise their faith.”

After the session, about a dozen Marines said they closely tracked last year’s political debate that prompted the policy change and believe they better understand gay culture than previous generations.

“Back in the ’80s and ’90s, you never saw gays and stuff on the TV shows that often,” Sgt. Jimmy Smalygo, 28, said. “But as the years progressed, especially in the last decade, how many shows are out there that are based on gays?”

Some level of familiarity may exist, said Cpl. David McGuire, 24, but the training matters because “you have Marines from all over the country — from California, where it’s legal to be married to a gay person, or in Mississippi and Arkansas, where there are Marines who grew up with their family completely disagreeing with that situation.”

Cpl. Crystal Person, 23, was more philosophical about the changes.

“Over the years, things are going to change,” she said. “As of now, they’re letting gay people in the military, but they’re not letting gay people get married. But that’s something that everybody sitting in this room wearing the uniform agreed to when they signed up. As a Marine, as a sailor, you have to abide by those rules.”

To read more of the Marines’ comments about the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” go to www.washingtonpost.com/federaleye

Get the latest political news from PostPolitics:

Pentagon: Training to start in February

Lesbian ex-cadet rejected for readmission says she’s giving up her fight

Klein: Can Panetta take on the Defense Department?

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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