U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest was well into his second term when President Bill Clinton's compromise "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military came to a vote y the House in 1993.

The Maryland Republican was conflicted. His brother was gay, and Gilchrest didn't believe the lifestyle was unsavory or would undermine the military's "wholesome environment," as some of his colleagues framed the debate.

But he also heeded the concerns raised by House conservatives such as Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a fellow Vietnam veteran who warned that asking men and women to serve "in close, intimate, private quarters" with homosexuals would create conflict in the ranks.

Gilchrest, along with 301 colleagues on both sides of the aisle, took what he now says was probably the easy route that day and ratified the policy.

"At the time, it seemed like the reasonable compromise," Gilchrest said. "That's pretty much how it was when I was in the service. Nobody asked about it, nobody thought about it."

A dozen years later, Gilchrest has broken ranks and joined congressional Democrats in seeking to lift the ban on gays in the military. The former Marine sergeant, who was wounded in Vietnam, calls the policy an outright failure that costs taxpayers millions of dollars to enforce and keeps out capable men and women.

His change of heart has helped revitalize the debate over the long-standing prohibition as operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are straining U.S. forces and the Army is struggling to meet recruitment goals.

Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) introduced the Military Readiness Enhancement Act in March seeking the repeal. Gilchrest is one of four Republicans and 81 Democrats co-sponsoring the legislation.

Flouting party lines is familiar ground for Gilchrest. In 14 years in the House, the affable former high school teacher and house painter has established a reputation as a political wild card.

There's Gilchrest the conservative: He voted to ban the procedure opponents call "partial birth" abortion and to block a D.C. Commission on Human Rights ruling that the Boy Scouts of America reinstate two gay leaders.

Then there's Gilchrest the liberal: He frequently clashes with his party on environmental issues, including a vote on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And last year, he opposed a proposed constitutional amendment that would have banned gay marriage.

His stand on the military's ban is a bit of a departure for Gilchrest. Though his voting record is generally favorable to veterans, he has never served on any armed services committees and isn't considered a key player on military issues.

Most of his time is spent on issues involving the Chesapeake Bay and the bucolic mesh of inlets, farms and small towns that make up his 1st Congressional District, which includes all of Maryland's Eastern Shore and parts of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Harford counties.

Gilchrest admits he never gave the issue of gays in the military much thought after the 1993 vote.

But after seeing Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) sign on to Meehan's bill, he asked to meet with her. Ros-Lehtinen told him how her husband had been cared for by a military nurse in Vietnam who was lesbian.

Gilchrest recalled his own military service. As a Marine sergeant in 1967, Gilchrest took a bullet in the chest while trying to free himself and two others cut off by the enemy. He was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart . He said now he's certain that some of the Marines he fought alongside were gay.

"You just didn't think about it in those days, but you knew there were people of that persuasion, and they served with great distinction," he said, nearly four decades later.

Then Gilchrest looked at the numbers: the cost over the last 10 years to investigate, discharge and replace the more than 9,400 service members who acknowledged they were gay -- $190 million, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office.

The number of discharges dropped to 653 last year, the lowest since "don't ask, don't tell" was implemented, a decline many analysts ascribe to reluctance on the part of commanders to let any soldier go in a time of war.

But the ban has cost the military some members in critical specialties, including 41 health care professionals, 20 combat engineers and nine linguists last year alone, according to a new report by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a D.C.-based nonprofit group.

"Not only does it take money away from purchasing armor for Humvees, there's a lot of very skilled people that are being taken out of the military who are hard to replace," Gilchrest said.

Gilchrest also thought about his youngest brother, David, who last year married his partner of 16 years on a beach in Massachusetts.

When a fellow Republican warned last year that gay marriage would bring the wrath of God down on the nation, Gilchrest stood up and said, "My brother's gay, he's married to a nice man and he's normal."

Last year, he took David to the White House for a Christmas dinner and introduced him to the president.

David Gilchrest, 48, said he's proud of his brother's stand. "He's always been very open-minded," he said. "He listens to both sides of the story, and he doesn't get angry when he talks about the issues."

Wayne Gilchrest doesn't expect his conversion to influence conservative hard-liners, but he hopes it will stoke debate among moderates. It has already given hope to groups seeking to end the ban.

"I think it's difficult to underestimate the impact that a Vietnam War veteran like Congressman Gilchrest, with his military credentials, will have on the debate," said Steve Ralls, communications director for the defense network.

It remains to be seen how Gilchrest's stand will fare in the increasingly conservative 1st District, where he plans to run for a ninth term next year. His strongest challenges in recent years have come from opponents who declare him too liberal. He knows this will add fodder.

He also knows the issue may sway support among veterans. The 2.4 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars organization favors the ban, as do many military retirees in his district. Earl Gardner, 57, of Cambridge is a Democrat but has long supported Gilchrest. They're both Vietnam veterans and belong to the same chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. But on this point, they disagree.

Lifting the ban, Gardner said, would be "bad for morale. People should be allowed to choose their own lifestyle, but there are others who are always going to have bad opinions, and once they find out someone's gay, they're going to shun them and treat them badly, and if you're in a war zone that's going to lead to all kinds of problems."

It's the same argument Gilchrest heard this week in a meeting with Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Hunter's staff did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday.

"He raises a good question," Gilchrest said. "There's no utopia. There's problems with men and women in ships, and the Air Force Academy, my God. But my response is simply that there is a code of conduct in the military, and if you break that, you're out."

The GOP's Gilchrest joins Democrats in an effort to drop the ban.U.S. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.) served in Vietnam. His voting record usually favors veterans, but he isn't seen as a key player on military issues.