By Ernesto Londoño
Wednesday, February 10, 2010; A07
BAGHDAD -- Days before a deployment to Iraq last year, the 26-year-old soldier's sergeant told his troops that they would get to know one another pretty well over the next few months.
"I'm in trouble," the specialist remembered thinking. He feared comrades would find out he is gay. Worse, he said, they could figure out that he has been dating another soldier in the combat arms battalion for more than five years. Their careers were on the line.
The reaction during the soldier's year-long deployment -- nobody asked about it -- offers new insight into how today's military might adapt to a repeal of the ban on openly gay service members sought by President Obama and top Pentagon officials. The specialist didn't exactly tell, but at the end of the tour, his sexual orientation had become a poorly kept secret -- and his career was undamaged.
"I don't know if I won any hearts and minds among the Iraqis," said the specialist, who returned home from Iraq recently. "But I did among my brothers in arms because I did my job well and went above and beyond. I was respected."
A younger and more liberal corps of commanders and soldiers has given rise to bubbles of tolerance in today's military, an institution that soldiers describe as still largely unwelcoming and wary of gays, according to interviews with more than a dozen enlisted troops and officers, both gay and straight.
Underground gay communities have emerged at bases across the United States and even in war zones. In Iraq, one e-mail group maintained by gay troops includes a database where soldiers post their instant-messaging screen names and the base where they're stationed. Dozens have profiles on gay dating sites, some posing in uniform.
In recent years, service members and researchers say, a growing number of gay troops have disclosed their sexual orientation to supervisors and comrades. They say they are buoyed by a sense that wartime commanders are increasingly reluctant to lose skilled troops to a ban many now view as archaic.
But even if the current law and policy known as "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed in coming months, gay soldiers are unlikely to come out of the closet in large numbers, service members said.
"An openly gay soldier would have a lot to overcome," said Matthew Gallagher, a former Army captain and popular blogger who left the Army last year. "It is a culture fueled entirely by machismo, and it definitely has a bit of locker-room homophobia."
Gallagher, 26, who is straight, said he nonetheless thinks openly gay service members should be allowed to serve. "If an openly gay soldier went into a unit and proved himself competent and skillful, I believe most units and soldiers would accept him as one of their own -- especially during combat," he said. "At the end of the day, the military thrives off of pragmatism, and nothing matters more to soldiers."
Other officers disagree. They argue that lifting the ban could demoralize an institution strained by two ongoing wars and the toll of nearly a decade of combat. Openly gay soldiers could weaken unit cohesion and present logistical and moral dilemmas for commanders, supporters of the ban said.
"Due to the nature of what soldiers do, we discriminate against the too young, the too old, the infirm, the overweight, the physically unfit and women," said a senior commander who has served in Iraq, speaking on the condition of anonymity to argue against the administration's position. "Discrimination against homosexuals is no different."
Adjusting to new policies to accommodate openly gay soldiers could become a distraction for commanders, he said.
"Do we discipline a soldier for not adhering to Army values if he complains about having to pull guard or share a bunk with an openly gay soldier?" the commander said. "Send him to sensitivity training? Are we all going to have to submit to annual gay sensitivity training?"
Officers often notice that their soldiers may be gay. There was something different about the 26-year-old specialist, his commander said in an interview. Before deploying, he wore designer jeans and had a more genteel demeanor than most in the battalion, which is based on the East Coast.
"My gaydar went off the screen," said the captain, who, like the specialist, spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of violating the policy. "He didn't discuss his orientation with anyone, but after his peers got to know him it was apparent."
The specialist's rudimentary command of Arabic and broad range of skills made him an asset. He was as comfortable in the gunner's seat of an armored vehicle as he was fixing communication equipment. His outgoing personality and sense of humor made him popular.
"I don't think his orientation became an issue, because he maintained a professional appearance and performed like any other soldier," said the captain, who is in his late 30s. "I never saw his orientation as a liability to his performance or to the cohesion of the unit or unit readiness."
In the eight years before the United States went to war in Afghanistan, at least 7,989 service members were discharged because of the ban. That number dropped noticeably after the U.S.-led intervention in 2002; since then, 5,400 service members have been discharged for being gay.
Recent polls show that a majority of Americans think openly gay soldiers should be allowed to serve, a significant shift in public opinion from 1993, when "don't ask, don't tell" was adopted.
Surveys of service members show a different picture. In a 2006 Zogby International poll, only 26 percent said they should.
Even if the ban were lifted, many gay soldiers said they would come out slowly, if at all.
"I think there will be a perception that it will negatively impact promotions and evaluations," said a 37-year-old officer who has been in the Army Reserve for over 14 years. He married another man last year in Connecticut, one of five states where same-sex marriage is legal. If the ban is lifted, his spouse might qualify for health-care benefits and other assistance when the officer is deployed. "You're still going to be treated differently," the officer said.