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Sorry We Asked, Sorry You Told

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, July 24, 2008

Don't ask, don't tell. And, whatever you do, don't ask Elaine Donnelly to tell you what she thinks about gays in the military.

The House Armed Services personnel subcommittee made just such a miscalculation yesterday. Holding the first hearing in 15 years on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, lawmakers invited a quartet of veterans to testify on the subject and also extended an invitation to Donnelly, who has been working for years to protect our fighting forces from the malign influence of women.

Donnelly treated the panel to an extraordinary exhibition of rage. She warned of "transgenders in the military." She warned that lesbians would take pictures of people in the shower. She spoke ominously of gays spreading "HIV positivity" through the ranks.

"We're talking about real consequences for real people," Donnelly proclaimed. Her written statement added warnings about "inappropriate passive/aggressive actions common in the homosexual community," the prospects of "forcible sodomy" and "exotic forms of sexual expression," and the case of "a group of black lesbians who decided to gang-assault" a fellow soldier.

At the witness table with Donnelly, retired Navy Capt. Joan Darrah, a lesbian, rolled her eyes in disbelief. Retired Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, a gay man who was wounded in Iraq, looked as if he would explode.

Inadvertently, Donnelly achieved the opposite of her intended effect. Though there's no expectation that Congress will repeal "don't ask, don't tell" and allow gays to serve openly in the military, the display had the effect of increasing bipartisan sympathy for the cause.

Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) labeled her statement "just bonkers" and "dumb," and he called her claims about an HIV menace "inappropriate." Said Snyder: "By this analysis . . . we ought to recruit only lesbians for the military, because they have the lowest incidence of HIV in the country."

Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), a veteran of the war in Iraq, called Donnelly's words "an insult to me and many of the soldiers" by saying they "aren't professional enough to serve openly with gay troops while successfully completing their military mission."

Retorted Donnelly: "What would you say to Cynthia Yost, the woman on a training exercise assaulted by a group of lesbians?"

Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.) pointed a finger at Darrah and glared at Donnelly. "Would you please tell me, Miss Donnelly, why I should give one twit about this woman's sexual orientation, when it didn't interfere one bit with her service?"

Donnelly said something about "forced intimacy."

Shays cut her off. "You're saying she has no right to serve her country because she happens to have a different sexual orientation than you."

Donnelly returned to the case of "Cynthia Yost . . . assaulted by a group of lesbians." She neglected to mention that the incident was alleged to have occurred in 1974.

It was tempting to think that Donnelly had been chosen by Democrats to sabotage the case against open military service for homosexuals. But Republicans had consented to the witness panel, which also included retired Army Maj. Gen. Vance Coleman, a black man who likened the current policy to racial segregation in the military, and retired Army Sgt. Maj. Brian Jones, who argued almost as passionately as Donnelly for the need to keep the military straight.

The subcommittee chairwoman, Susan Davis (D-Calif.), asked for the "utmost respect," and John McHugh (N.Y.), the ranking Republican, urged a "civil discussion." That held up as Coleman spoke of one of the openly gay soldiers who served with him in Korea, Darrah spoke of the "constant fear of being outed and fired," and Alva spoke of his lost leg and how he "nearly died to secure rights for others that I myself was not free to enjoy."

Then came Donnelly, severe in a black jacket with a flag pin on her lapel as she attacked the "San Francisco left who want to impose their agenda on the military." She spoke of the "devastating" effect gay soldiers would have on the military and said "people who do have religious convictions" would be driven out of the military by the "sexualized atmosphere."

"We are not talking about a Hollywood role here," Donnelly lectured the lawmakers.

Donnelly was followed by Jones, a tough-talking businessman who suggested that the military's tradition of "selfless service" would be undermined by gay men and lesbians. "In the military environment, team cohesion, morale and esprit de corps is a matter of life and death," he said. His written statement spelled it "esprit decor"; it also warned of "a band of lesbians that harassed new females," and noted his own military experience when "the only way to keep from freezing at night was to get as close as possible for body heat -- which means skin to skin."

But it was Donnelly, founder and president of the Center for Military Readiness, who amused lawmakers the most. Snyder asked Darrah about Donnelly's reference to "passive-aggressive actions common in the homosexual community," saying, "I'm almost tempted to ask you to demonstrate."

Darrah was stumped. "Like a woman who is stared at, her breasts are stared at," Donnelly explained. She further explained the "absolutely devastating" effect of homosexuals "introducing erotic factors" and made a comparison to Sen. Larry Craig's adventure at the Minneapolis airport. She said admitting gays to the military would be "forced cohabitation" and a policy of "relax and enjoy it."

Murphy puffed his cheeks with air to calm himself. Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) said she was "shocked." Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) said she was "embarrassed." Shays said it was "scurrilous" of Donnelly to talk about the menace of homosexual misconduct, because it would be punished the same way the military punishes heterosexual misconduct.

Shays, his voice rising with Yankee indignation, continued to lecture Donnelly: "I think the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy is unpatriotic. I think it's counterproductive. In fact, I think it is absolutely cruel."

Donnelly said something about her respect for the service of gay veterans. "How do you respect their service?" Shays demanded. "You want them out."

Donnelly seemed to have unified the lawmakers -- against her. The next questioner was Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a retired Navy vice admiral. "I couldn't ask it better than you did," he told Shays.

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