'Don't ask, don't tell' law's expected repeal creates strange state of limbo

By Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 13, 2010; A01

The day after Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced in March that the military would ease enforcement of its "don't ask, don't tell" policy, a 21-year-old soldier in Baghdad learned that he had been outed by a fellow service member.

The soldier's command opened an investigation into the charge, and he quickly retained a lawyer. Then, nothing happened. His platoon sergeant told him that his command was going to "stick the investigation in a manila envelope and put the envelope in a desk," recalled the soldier, whose name is being withheld at his request.

The only change he noticed was that his platoon sergeant, once prone to shouting out a derogatory term for gay men, cut back his usage.

"And when he does say it," the soldier noted, "he'll give me a look like he is sorry."

The soldier's case reflects the subtle, but significant, changes taking place throughout the military even before the expected repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." Although it seems unlikely that changes to the policy will go into effect before next year, front-line troops, their commanders and others are already preparing themselves for the law's demise.

Even President Obama, set to name a new Marine Corps commandant in the coming weeks, is likely to face significant pressure to select someone who is not too outspoken in his opposition to repealing the law. All of the candidates being considered for the job have expressed reservations about repeal during wartime, according to senior U.S. officials familiar with the process.

Under current legislation, any repeal must be delayed until the military certifies that changes won't hinder the ability of U.S. forces to fight, and the Pentagon is in the midst of a comprehensive review to determine how to fully integrate openly gay men and lesbians. Among other issues, that review is examining whether gay and heterosexual troops should be required to share barracks.

But in many ways, military personnel are caught in a strange state of limbo. Some are being forced to confront issues surrounding the repeal of the 17-year-old policy.

Earlier this month, for example, a soldier with the Army's 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., applied for married housing benefits on the base with his male partner, whom he had recently wed, Army officials said. The request prompted unit commanders to open a formal investigation, and the soldier, whose action appeared to be an act of protest, could be dismissed from the military, Army officials said.

But the housing request also highlighted one of the many questions for which the military has no answer: Should same-sex partners be eligible for the same housing benefits that heterosexual married couples receive?

The potential repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" also is causing some angst within the military's chaplain corps, which has grown more conservative and evangelical since the policy was established. In recent weeks, most military chaplains have sought formal guidance from their endorsing organizations regarding the new policy and homosexuality.

Although chaplains are part of the military, they also must answer to their individual denominations. Some conservative denominations that endorse chaplains have expressed worry that a formal recognition of the rights of gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military could lead to limits on what their chaplains can preach.

"Will someone be able to teach a Bible study in which they say homosexuality is immoral?" asked retired Brig. Gen. Douglas E. Lee, who left the military in late 2008. "I think there is a high probability that it could be challenged."

If that was to happen, some denominations could pull their chaplain endorsements, forcing religious leaders to choose between their military service and their faith, said Lee, who represents six conservative Presbyterian denominations that provide chaplain endorsements.

Other serving military chaplains expressed confidence that they could manage the potential conflict between their faith and the federal government. "Will there be some pressures? Absolutely," said Col. David Moran, who oversees chaplain training for the Army. "But when chaplains come to the military they realize they are not joining a traditional congregation where everyone's beliefs are the same."

Moran, who is endorsed by the conservative Church of God, recently received guidance from his denomination declaring that homosexuality is a sin. But he said his church's policy wouldn't prevent him from serving and preaching in a military with openly gay soldiers. "We realize that as chaplains we have to be sensitive to our audience and the context in which we are speaking," he said. "Chaplains have always been prudent enough to manage this."

For some gay soldiers, the current debate surrounding "don't ask, don't tell" has proved tough to manage emotionally. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which provides legal representation to gay members of the military, said it has seen a spike in calls to its hotline in recent months. Troops, the group says, are seeking legal advice and a forum to vent frustration.

The soldier facing an investigation in Baghdad said he came out to a few of his comrades in mid-March, about six weeks after Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, condemned the current policy for forcing troops to lie about their sexual orientation.

At the time, the soldier and his fellow field artillery soldiers were at Camp Victory, just outside Baghdad, debating politics, the "tea party" movement and "don't ask, don't tell."

"The conversation kept building, and I felt the voice inside of me screaming. If from that conversation it was not noticeable that I was gay, they were crazy," he recalled in a blog that he started this year to protest the law.

"I am gay," he recalled saying loudly.

After coming out to his fellow soldiers, he said he felt energized. "I was on the verge of tears and laughter," he wrote. "I felt those same emotions that ran through my head as a teenager following the coming out to my parents."

The next day he was told that he was being investigated. "The other day I felt honorable," he wrote in his blog post. "Today I feel like a . . . criminal. I am tired. After serving this country for three years in two deployments I am no longer a soldier. I am now a prisoner."

Although the soldier has been told that he will be allowed to finish his Iraq deployment, his fate remains unclear. In the interview, he said he's worried that his command will restart the investigation when his unit finishes its tour.

"My biggest fear," he said, "is what happens when we are at home and they don't really need me any more."

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