Sunday, June 22, 2008

New Military Data "Tells" Only Part of the Story

The New York Times is reporting this evening that the United States military dismissed 627 service members, in 2007, under the federal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law that bars openly lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans from the armed forces. The data reflects a 50% drop in discharges since 2001, vividly illustrating that, during times of war when personnel are needed most, the Pentagon seems to "look the other way" when it comes to enforcement of the law.

The data also comes on the heels of reports that the Department of Defense has issued a record number of so-called "moral waivers" to boost enlistment in the forces, as the services find themselves stretched thin by on-going conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As PFLAG's Dan Tepfer, a retired Air Force Colonel, asked recently in the Dayton Daily News, "How can the U.S. armed services justify making exceptions to enlist individuals with criminal records but continue to deny military careers to honest, qualified gay men and women?"

The numbers released this evening also show that women, especially, are hard-hit by the ban. Though they account for roughly 15% of the total military force, 46% of those dismissed under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in 2007 were women. Historically, women have been booted under the law at a rate nearly twice their presence in the services, but the 2007 numbers show a troubling increase in the percentage of female service personnel who are impacted by the ban.

The data, however, only tells part of the story. "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" places an unacceptable burden on the families of the estimated 65,000 LGBT troops on duty today. As Colonel Tepfer pointed out in his op-ed, imagine a scenario where "Before work, a military mom takes her pre-schooler to the base child-care facility. Before they hug goodbye, she reminds her child, as she does every day, 'Don't tell anyone, not even the other kids, about your other mommy.' She knows an overheard comment could jeopardize her career."

And, in an even more heart-breaking scenario, "Two uniformed officers walk up the sidewalk and ring the doorbell. They bring the devastating news that one of the two men who live together in that home has been killed in Afghanistan. But wait. You can't imagine that scenario because it wouldn't happen. Because of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' no representative from the military would arrive to inform and comfort the partner who had shared a deceased Marine's life."

Indeed, the law also keeps children out of the military healthcare system; prevents military families from registering for civil unions or, in California and Massachusetts, from marrying; and essentially bars personnel deployed abroad from staying in touch or even simply saying "I love you" in an email.

No wonder, considering the impact on security and the impact on families, that military leaders from retired Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy to retired Joint Chiefs Chairman John Shalikashvili, have called for an end to the law. Our families, and our country, deserve better than "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

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