Troops express views on gay ban

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Some expressed fears about contracting AIDS or getting leered at in the showers. Others worried that it would get in the way of critical bonding at barbecues and bar outings. Still others said it would be an affront to their religious beliefs and harm the military's credibility.

In dozens of anonymous testimonials released by the Pentagon on Tuesday, service members and their spouses shared a variety of deeply personal views about "don't ask, don't tell," the policy that bans gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military. Although many endorsed the idea of repealing the ban, which Congress will consider in December, some expressed deep misgivings, rooted in their beliefs and concerns about its effect on the military.

Overall, the study showed that about 70 percent of active-duty and reserve forces saw little or no problem with ending the 17-year-old policy, which critics have said is discriminatory, harmful to troop readiness and at odds with the military's emphasis on honesty. But in a 13-page section of the report, dozens of quotes reflected the attitudes of the remaining 30 percent.

The quotes were gleaned from the more than 100,000 surveys returned by service members and their spouses, which formed the basis of the study. Each questionnaire included an optional section that allowed for a free response. The comments were also collected from about 72,000 unsolicited opinions from service members submitted to an Internet drop box and from comments made at open meetings held on military bases.

"I cannot rely on someone who I don't feel comfortable with, nor can they trust me," one respondent wrote. "A lack of trust turns into a lack of cohesion, which eventually leads to mission failure."

Said another: "How far are we going to go with this whole gay thing? Am I supposed to celebrate gayness - do they get to wear a rainbow flag on their uniform? If that is the case, this uniform isn't worth wearing."

And another: "I believe this is not the time for us to make huge changes in the military. We are at war and our men and women overseas do not need any more distractions. This issue should be addressed at the appropriate time. That time is not now."

On the other side, many respondents said they saw no problem with lifting the policy. Some viewed it as a result of the same prejudice that long prevented racial integration and prevented women from serving. They said it was un-American to discriminate against gays in the military; one noted that he or she was willing to be killed in action for the American values of equality and civil liberties.

"Gays and lesbians have been serving in the Armed Forces since the inception of our country," one said. "They love this country just as much as heterosexuals. They have been 'outed' while serving, humiliated in front of their peers, beaten up and given dishonorable discharges in the past (and even present day). This must end. This is NOT what our country is about."

Some said they do not care about a person's sexuality as long as the person can "carry a gun" and "walk the post," even if it conflicted with their personal views. Others said the military should accept anyone willing to serve. They described the debate in generational terms, contending that homosexuality is no big deal to those younger than 30.

And the gay men and lesbians whose comments were included described the burden that would be lifted if they were permitted to serve openly.

"I doubt I would run down the street yelling 'I'm out,' " one person said. "But it would take a knife out of my back I have had for a long time. You have no idea what it is like to have to serve in silence."

Although the comments do not necessarily reflect the view of a majority of those in the military, they are significant in part because troops are typically discouraged from speaking out on controversial topics. The purpose, the report authors said, was not only to inform the debate but to allow these voices to be heard.

"The report is our report. It's two people's report, but it is reflecting the views and what we heard through this systematic engagement of the force," Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, who wrote the report with Defense Department general counsel Jeh C. Johnson, said in an interview Monday. "We can't do a disservice to them. We have to report what they told us."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company