By Gordon Lubold
The man who served as the nationâ€™s senior military officer when the â€śdonâ€™t ask, donâ€™t tellâ€ť policy on gays in the military was put in place says it is time to rethink that policy.
Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, who retired in 1997, says he supported â€śdonâ€™t ask, donâ€™t tellâ€ť when it was enacted in 1993, now argues that circumstances today â€”a military straining to deal with two wars amid calls for a bigger force â€” dictate that itâ€™s time for the country to revisit the issue of gays in the military.
â€śI now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces,â€ť Shalikashvili said in an op-ed piece in Jan. 2 edition of The New York Times. â€śOur military has been stretched thin by our deployments in the Middle East, and we must welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job.â€ť
Shalikashvili has met with several gay and lesbian service members over the past year, some with recent combat experience, and said he has come to the belief that their sexual orientation would not have the detrimental effect on morale that many believe.
â€śThese conversations showed me just how much the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by their peers,â€ť he wrote.
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs between 1993 and 1997, Shalikashvili said he supported the current policy because â€śimplementing a change in the rules at that time would have been too burdensome for our troops and commanders.â€ť But as Democrats take over both the House and Senate for the first time in 12 years, the opportunity may arise to raise the issue again.
â€śDonâ€™â€™t ask, donâ€™t tellâ€ť allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they keep their orientation secret and do not engage in homosexual sex. It also forbids commanders and supervisors from directly questioning a service memberâ€™s sexual orientation.
Shalikashvili is the most senior and prominent retired military member to call for a change to the policy, which was a compromise to President Clintonâ€™s campaign call in 1992 to allow gays to serve openly in the military.
Many rank-and-file service members do not want to see homosexuals serving actively and openly, saying it would hurt unit morale because homosexuality simply isnâ€™t compatible with military service. The Pentagon has long maintained that homosexuality is â€śdetrimental to good order and discipline.â€ť
But attitudes may be changing. A Zogby poll of more than 500 service members released Dec. 19 found that 73 percent of military members are â€ścomfortableâ€ť with lesbians and gays, and 23 percent â€śknow for sureâ€ť that someone in their unit is homosexual. At the same time, the most recent Military Times poll of more than 6,000 subscribers indicated that the percentage of active-duty personnel who think homosexuals should be allowed to serve openly in the military has risen slightly every year since that poll began, from 24 percent in 2003 to 30 percent in 2006.
In the op-ed piece, Shalikashvili said the most vexing problem facing the military right now is addressing the challenge in Iraq. But if Congress does take up the issue, Shalikashvili said it should do so very carefully.
â€śBy taking a measured, prudent approach to change, political and military leaders can focus on solving the nationâ€™s most pressing problems while remaining genuinely open to the eventual and inevitable lifting of the banâ€ť on gays serving openly, he wrote. â€śWhen that day comes, gay men and lesbians will no longer have to conceal who they are, and the military will no longer need to sacrifice those whose service it cannot afford to lose.â€ť
The Service Members Legal Defense Network, a gay advocacy group based in Washington, estimates that 65,000 gay or lesbian service members are in the military. About 11,000 people have been discharged from the military under â€śdonâ€™t ask, donâ€™t tell,â€ť including some in critical specialties such as foreign linguists, the group said.
A spokesman for the group said Shalikashviliâ€™s piece is a big step forward for advocates of the change.
â€śGen. Shalikashviliâ€™s statement is the first by a Joint Chiefs chairman to call for repeal, and as such is enormously significant,â€ť said C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of the SLDN, said in a prepared statement. â€śWe continue to lose critical personnel who happen to be gay. As Gen. Shalikashvili points out, continuing to keep this law on the books is detrimental to our national security.â€ť
This story originally appeared in the Army Times.