Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

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Posted October 22, 2007 in Feature Story

At 2 a.m. one Sunday last year, Amanda’s cell phone started beeping. She turned the alarm off, grabbed her pillow and blanket and walked into the living room to her desktop computer, its CPU fan still humming. Perched on a small, light-green wicker stool, she groggily peered at the screen, at a new instant-message text box. “I’m writing you a haiku,” the screen read. Six thousand miles away, Megan sat in her office in a military camp in Iraq, and just after finishing things up for the night, she sent her girlfriend an instant message.

Amanda, 31, a New York City native with wavy hair and sharp features, kept her phone on day and night from December 2004 until July 2005, and it would beep once Megan sent an instant message. Sometimes, she got the alarm during the middle-school class she teaches. Other times, she would get a message during her lunch break. But every week, she could count on getting a message on Sunday—“usually at 2 a.m., for some reason,” she says.

Lots of resources are available to military service members in Iraq. Marines can call home to their loved ones using the AT&T phone banks in Tactical Field Exchanges located throughout bases in Iraq. Other times, Marines write letters—or type their love letters into e-mails. And while Marines are deployed, The Key Volunteer network offers support for their families, providing classes that introduce them to military life, counseling to combat the stress of a deployment and to prepare for re-deployments, among many other things. In short, the military goes out of its way to support the families of its service members.

But not all of them. Except for sending e-mails during emergencies, or when bills needed to be sorted out, Megan and Amanda just used instant messenger. That’s because under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military’s official policy on homosexuality, Megan’s relationship with Amanda was grounds for discharge. Since e-mail and telephone lines in Iraq are always monitored, the logistics of maintaining their relationship were tremendously complex.

President Bill Clinton enacted “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 1993, with the intention of integrating homosexuals into the military. The product was a policy that is now widely considered obsolete, improperly implemented, alienating and a waste of resources. Military officers are barred from inquiring about a service member’s sexuality and, on the flip-side, Marines, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Coast Guardsmen who openly state that they are homosexual or exhibit “homosexual behavior” risk a discharge—albeit an honorable one. This can preclude homosexual service members from the support networks commonly available to military families—a problem underscored by the current occupation of Iraq. But activist groups and politicians are working to repeal the policy, and the Military Community Services Network, a nonprofit organization that provides counseling and peer support to gay and lesbian service members, is developing independent support networks at community organizations across the country.

(Because Megan is currently in the reserves, we’ve changed her name as well as Amanda’s.)

In October 2004, Megan, 27, then in the Marine reserves, got a phone call from a Marine Corps mobilization command, looking for officers for a unit that would go to Iraq that January. She told the officer she would love to go, but she had to think it over. “If it was two years earlier,” Megan recalls, “I would’ve said yes immediately.” She needed a weekend to think about it. Chiefly, she needed to talk to Amanda. The news was shocking to Amanda. Megan would be thousands of miles away and in constant peril amid a war that Amanda considered morally reprehensible. Plus, “there was the whole gay thing,” Amanda says. How would Megan do without moral support, especially if she and Amanda could not communicate openly?

The two spent the next few days discussing Megan’s plans, and, eventually, Megan decided to go. In a way, the timing was perfect. She was growing weary of her job in what she calls “corporate America” and missed the Marines. Plus, she’d rather go when she still had a choice; she felt it was her duty to serve, especially since some of her friends already had completed two tours. So, very reluctantly, and even as her friends tried to convince her not to, Amanda acquiesced.

“It was a weird catch-22. If I was like, ‘You can’t go,’ [that would be like] saying I don’t like everything about her that I originally fell in love with,” Amanda said. “And she’s an amazing, educated woman who decided this is what she wants to do.”

Amanda and Megan both did not want to pretend Megan had a boyfriend while deployed. “We’re both not into lying, so it’s better to say less. She wouldn’t have made me into a guy or any of that ridiculousness,” Amanda says. So, before deployment, Megan made her oldest brother next of kin, and set up an elaborate communication network. Telephones were off limits, and e-mail was fine only under certain circumstances, so, over time, they developed a kind of code to talk via instant messenger—most conversations could be mere formalities, or weirdly superficial, but sayings like “Take care” would begin to take on a new meaning.

As Megan’s deployment approached, she became more distant from Amanda. “It was like she left already,” Amanda remembers. For Megan, it was a survival mechanism, something she’d become accustomed to as a minority in the Marines. “In order to survive, you have to compartmentalize your life,” Megan recalls. “For me, it was about getting through the day.”

In December, Megan deployed for special training. She left for Iraq a month later.

During his first presidential campaign, 

Bill Clinton announced his intention to repeal the ban on gays in the military. When he was elected president in 1992, he commissioned a study by the Rand Corporation to develop a comprehensive approach to lifting the ban. Six months later, the report was released. Sexual Orientation and U.S. Military Personnel Policy: Options and Assessment, a sprawling analysis of other countries’ policies on homosexuality in the military and a survey of the American population and military veterans’ stance on the issue, concluded that the ban could be successfully lifted if the military swiftly implemented new policies, garnered the support of senior military leaders, emphasized a genuine reform rather than mere tolerance, established meaningful policy oversight and assured service members that the policy did not challenge the military’s traditional values.

Before the report was released, however, veterans’ groups galvanized an opposition movement, says Jim Maloney, the executive director of the Military Equality Alliance, an umbrella organization working to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The backlash spurred hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where military leaders said openly gay soldiers would wreak havoc upon military units. “Open homosexuality is the problem,” said H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the four-star Army general who was commander-in-chief at U.S. Central Command during the Persian Gulf War, at a hearing on May 11, 1993. Schwarzkopf said straight soldiers would become demoralized if they were forced to accept openly gay soldiers in their units.

Congress finally decided on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, an intended compromise that barred the military from asking new recruits about their sexual orientation, removed questions about sexuality from military applications and put restrictions on investigations into the sexual orientation of service members—so long as service members did not openly state their sexual orientation or engage in homosexual activities.

Tony Smith, an ex-airman with a round face, close-cropped black hair, a quirky smile and the light shade of a mustache, was serving as an intelligence analyst in Bedfordshire, England, when the policy was instituted. But during the ensuing months, he heard nothing about it from his command—“no update, no training, nothing at all,” Smith said in a phone interview. “For us, as gay airmen, you continued with the status quo. You continued to still live in fear every day of somebody finding out.”

Shortly after the policy was introduced, an airman Smith knew was questioned about his sexual orientation. During the investigation, military officials interviewed Smith about the nature of their relationship. They asked him how often they saw each other, where they would hang out, whether he knew if his friend had a girlfriend or dated anyone. “They didn’t come out and ask my orientation,” Smith said. “But they were asking some probing questions which didn’t seem to have anything to do with the original reason they brought me in for. To me, it was a warning sign that they were watching and that I had to be more cautious than I was already.”

While Megan was in Iraq, Amanda

developed an exercise regimen to occupy her mind. Every day, she woke at 6 a.m. and headed to Central Park, where she ran a loop of more than two miles. When she got home from teaching math at a local middle school, she’d return to the park and run the same length. She ran 25 to 30 miles a week and, at home, she tracked her body weight using complex charts she’d devised and spread all over her apartment. After seven months, she’d lost at least 30 pounds. “Literally, I went psychotic running,” she recalls.

On instant messenger, after Megan would finish for the night, Amanda shared stories about her students, talked about the weather, or about new male friends. The superficial conversations were “really weird,” Amanda says. “I ended up—and I don’t know if it was subconscious—making all of these guy friends, who I would write to her about. It’d be like, ‘Greg and I went on a really long walk. It was really fun,’ or ‘William and I went out for brunch.’ And these really were people,” Amanda recalls. Amanda had the support of her friends “24/7,” she says. But since most were New York City lesbians who played rugby and had nothing but disdain for the military, it was hard for them to understand what she was going through.

Dr. Elizabeth Carr, a psychologist and an officer in the Navy’s Medical Service Corps since 2000, compares policies of the corps to employee healthcare programs. Before patients receive attention from the Medical Services Corps, they must sign a limits-of-confidentiality agreement. This is usually so providers can report patients when they exhibit behavior that can be harmful to themselves or others. But in the Medical Service Corps, a healthcare provider may also report service members who are in violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the law book of the U.S. military. Since being openly homosexual is a violation of the UCMJ, Carr says there is no hard and fast policy on “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the context of medical care. In reality, she says, the fate of a homosexual service member hinges on the “luck of the draw.”

Service members who receive urgent care are often the most likely to unintentionally announce their sexuality, she says, because of their heightened distress. A physician is required to call a soldier’s command to report suicidal tendencies, she says, but in the event they accidentally state they are gay, the physician may or may not report that information. “It’s a total crap shoot,” Carr says. Often, it’s easier for a soldier to hide his or her sexuality when receiving outpatient therapy—for treatment of something like panic attacks, or to talk about a problem they’re having with a loved one.

In outpatient care, roughly a dozen of Carr’s patients came out to her during therapy, but only after several weeks. In those cases, usually when they had problems with their family members or loved ones, a tricky dance would ensue: The patient would begin using neutral pronouns when talking about their partners. “They’re not saying ‘he’ or ‘she,’ but they’re saying ‘this person,’ or ‘they,’” she says. Not wanting to ask bluntly if their partner is of the same sex, Carr would use the same neutral pronouns. If she kept with it, after several sessions the patient would start to notice. “They would start taking risks and sharing a little bit more and a little bit more,” she says. But if she slipped, and referred to a partner in the opposite sex, the patient would usually not attend a follow-up session.

The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is an obvious impediment to successful therapy sessions, she says. “At least seven times out of 10, part of the story has to do with your life partner, either directly or indirectly.”

Worse, though, the policy challenges fundamental military values, Carr says, forcing gay service members to live by “lies of omission.”

“Military service for gay, lesbian and bisexual service members requires such omissions of fundamental aspects of one’s personal life,” she said. “This causes these individuals what we call ‘cognitive dissonance,’ mental discomfort and stress.”

Around 8 p.m. in late June, Megan had just finished up work and was talking with Amanda via instant messenger in her office on the military base. Moments later, a frazzled co-worker burst into the office. Megan heard the chopping of helicopters outside—they were coming in earlier than usual, which was not a good sign, she says. In guarded terms, the officer told her that a convoy full of women soldiers had just been attacked just outside of Falluja. 

According to news reports regarding the attack, the convoy was taking the same short ride back to camp that it took each night after manning checkpoints around the city. A car driving in front of the convoy pulled off the road to let the line of giant, armored vehicles pass. The troops were chugging past when, suddenly, the car sped toward a five-ton truck full of women troops. The car erupted and set the truck ablaze, killing several troops, including three of the women. In the ensuing gunfire, other women crawled out of the vehicle’s charred remains in a daze, many severely burned.

After hearing the news, Megan sent a quick e-mail to Amanda. “Have a great weekend, and pray for the soldiers and sailors,” she wrote. “Keep them in your thoughts.” Then, because military protocol bars reporting any casualties outside of official channels, Megan signed off.

That morning, Amanda read the e-mail. “That was really weird,” she recalled thinking. “What the hell are sailors doing in the middle of Iraq?” Later that afternoon, in the middle of class, she got an e-mail from her cousin. “My prayers are with you, I know the day is hard,” it read. She shrugged it off, but she checked CNN.com at lunch and read about the attack. Megan had recently been in the Sunni Triangle—an area encompassing Falluja—and reports said the military used the road where the attack occurred in nearly every convoy from Camp Falluja, the military base five miles outside the city. Over the next class period, Amanda had a student sit at a computer and continually refresh the search browser on CNN.com.

After class, she raced home and tried to calm her nerves—there was something about that e-mail, she thought, that made her feel Megan was OK. (At the time, neither of them knew that one of the women killed was a female Navy Seabee.) She went to her computer and found Megan’s older brother signed on to instant messenger. Soon, Megan’s younger brother also signed on. She forwarded the e-mail and the instant messages she had to both of them. They analyzed the e-mails’ time stamps and compared them to AP reports released about the attack. Three hours later, Amanda was more confident that Megan wasn’t injured. David wasn’t. He refused to tell his family about the e-mail, fearing it would be more devastating for them to think she might be OK, then find out later she wasn’t. Today, Megan understands why. “We have a saying in Iraq, that ‘No news is good news.’ And that’s very true,” Megan said.

The next morning, Megan sent an e-mail to her friends and family, telling them she wasn’t part of the convoy. But the attack was a grim reminder of the horrors of war. “It shouldn’t matter that they were female Marines but, for some, it was a blow,” Megan said. The attack killed more women than any other since the beginning of the war, and at least a dozen were badly injured.

Several days after the attack, while Megan was passing through Falluja with her unit, she went with some other officers to offer support to injured troops who were still at Camp Falluja’s surgical center. Their injuries were much like ones Megan had seen before—burns that spread over their faces and bodies, making their skin charred and black. Many of the women were heavily medicated because they were in so much pain. They would not have survived such injuries, Megan says, with the medical technology available even during the Persian Gulf War.

The Veterans Administration hospital in San Diego, on the UCSD campus, provides comprehensive in- and out-patient care for almost all veterans, including those who were honorably discharged—the type of discharge homosexual service members face. But the hospital currently does not provide any programs specifically geared towards gay and lesbian veterans, according to Cindy Butler, director of public affairs for the VA.

The Center, a gay-oriented community center in Hillcrest, provides a number of resources, including counseling, discussion and coming-out groups. But, according to Sean Worley, a spokesman for the Center, there are no programs specifically geared towards gay and lesbian service members, veterans or their families. Indeed, the San Diego chapter of American Veterans’ For Equal Rights, a nationwide group working to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” is one of the few resources available locally for gay veterans and current service members. That all may change with the help of the Military Community Services Network.

During the attack on Afghanistan and the run-up to the Iraq war, Tony Smith, the former intelligence specialist, was troubled that gay and lesbian partners of soldiers did not have any clear support. “You didn’t see them with the tearful goodbyes in the media. You didn’t know where they were going or who was supporting them,” Smith said. He began working with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian military personnel, to establish a support network for the partners of gay and lesbian service members through his local Metropolitan Community Church in Arlington, Va. By 2003, the program branched off into an independent nonprofit called the Military Community Services Network.

MCSN, Smith says, acts as a “bridge” between gay service members and their partners, who are often concerned about confidentiality, and social networks and programs already available in local communities. Most of the group’s clients seek peer mentoring and counseling, whether they are dealing with a discharge, harassment or separation and communication problems.

To expand the program, volunteers at VAs and other organizations across the country are undergoing sensitivity training to work with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered service members. The group is currently working on a program that, in the first year, will create clandestine support networks for 165 PFLAG chapters (Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays) that are located within a three-hour drive of major military installations. “This will be everywhere from large metropolitan areas like New York, San Francisco and San Diego to small rural areas like Minot, N.D.; Waco, Texas; and other areas,” Smith says. He plans to expand the program over the next four years.

In the years since “don’t ask, don’t tell” was implemented, the number of homosexuality-related discharges in the military rose from 617 in 1994 to 870 in 1996 and finally to 1,273 in 2001. In 2005, the last year for which statistics are available, the number fell back to 742. To date, the number of discharges totals more than 10,000, including more than 50 Arabic- and Farsi-speaking linguists. In February, a Blue Ribbon commission assembled by the University of California concluded that last year the Government Accountability Office miscalculated by half the cost of enlisting and training service members only to have them discharged under the policy. While the GAO put that number at roughly $190.5 million, the panel estimated the cost to taxpayers to be $363.8 million.

In March 2005, Martin T. Meehan, a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, introduced the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Along with more than 110 other congressmen and women, San Diego Representative Susan Davis signed the bill.

The bill has since floundered in Congress, receiving little support from Republicans. Davis, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, attributes the bill’s failure to the military and Congress’ perception that there hasn’t been enough support to repeal the policy.

“The general response that I hear is ‘This is the law, and we’re not going to mess with it.’ It was passed overwhelmingly by the Congress and… they don’t see there’s a real push to change it,” says Davis, who sees the policy more as a “political invention” than a legitimate safeguard. “Proportionally,” the military perceives that “the numbers themselves are not so sufficient to make them look again at this issue,” she says. “But they also believe, or suggest, that when the American people have a different response to this, and the congressional leaders respond different, that things might change.”

Statistics show that members of the military and the wider public have more support for fully integrating homosexuals into the military than they did a decade ago. A July 1993 poll by NBC/Wall Street Journal put support for openly gay service members at 40 percent. In May 2005, a poll for the Boston Globe reported that the number grew to 79 percent.

The argument both for and against “don’t ask, don’t tell” depends on the effect a new policy would have on soldiers, especially during wartime. “Survival is very important, and [service members have] got to be able to believe that they can work well together,” Davis says. “Some people may fear that it would impact that relationship.” Many service members with whom she has discussed the issue have had experience with homosexuals in the military. “I think they all have, at one time or another,” Davis says. “And I think, generally speaking, that their experiences have been good.” 

This issue is complicated by the fact that, in 2005, the military began sending newly outed service members to serve terms in Iraq before discharging them.

Ultimately, Davis says, the success of re-integrating homosexuals in the military depends on whether soldiers adhere to proper conduct. This is a challenge in successfully implementing any military policy, she notes. “I don’t think that’s unique to hetero or homosexuals.”

Activist groups are drafting a bill that would be introduced in the Senate to repeal the policy and petitioning support from Republican senators. The California state Senate voted in favor of a resolution urging a repeal of the policy as have a handful of cities.

Meanwhile, former service members across the country have banned together to overturn the policy. Patrick English, once a Korean linguist for the Air Force, decided not to reenlist last year because of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and instead became involved in the movement to change it. Last year, he helped organize the “Call to Duty Tour,” a cross-country lecture series that looped through the Midwest and the South and ended in San Diego.

English says the arguments some members of Congress and the military have used—that unit cohesion would suffer from openly gay service members—are specious and based on little to no research. In fact, he says, unit cohesion suffers more when a service member is pulled from a unit because of the policy. While stationed in Texas in August 2002, six of his friends at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., were investigated and later discharged after they were found hanging out in each others’ rooms after curfew. It took six months before English’s friend, Alastair Gamble, was discharged (he was intending to study Arabic), and he was on casual status during the time, doing office and administrative work around the base. “Everybody sees this person, then, all of a sudden, they’re torn out of the unit, and it made everyone a little edgy and definitely brought morale down,” English says. “People thought it was sort of a stupid thing.”

A few weeks before Megan came back from Iraq, she sent Amanda an instant message, saying she wanted to talk about their relationship. Having spent nearly a year away from her girlfriend, not having once heard her voice, it wasn’t something Amanda wanted to read in an instant message. But Megan didn’t necessarily want to break up. Many of her experiences in Iraq were like on-the-job training, she says, and “the learning curve is very, very steep.” She wanted to live with her family for a while.

The night Amanda saw Megan at the airport, the first time they had talked in nearly a year, Amanda’s anxiety, frustration and stress, and the toll of countless sleepless nights and days running around Central Park, began to dissipate. “She came back amazing,” Amanda recalled.

Recently, Amanda sat on a plush couch in her apartment, watching a special episode of The Biggest Loser—a reality show on NBC—on which military wives from the Navy, the Marines and the Army competed to burn off as much weight as possible before their husbands returned from Iraq. As she watched, tears streamed down her face. She knew exactly what the women were going through.

“You’re grabbing so quickly onto something,” she says, “just one thing that’s gonna get you through.” She started to feel an affinity with the women, who, for so long, she thought she had nothing in common with. “Wow, my relationship really does exist,” she thought.

Peter Holslin is a former CityBeat intern, San Diego High School gradute and a student at the New School in New York City.

 


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