April 03, 2012

Impact of Ending Military's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Law 'Negligible'

For 13 years, Marine Maj. Darrel Choat didn't tell. That meant 13 years of demurring when the wives of fellow officers tried to set him up with women they knew. It meant sneaking away to attend the funeral of a friend who'd died of AIDS. It meant staying silent when fellow Marines ranted about "fags."

Then, last September, came the repeal of the law that had allowed Choat to serve his country as a gay man as long as he was quiet about it.

On Sept. 20, 2011, "as a Marine, I reclaimed the honor and integrity that I had as a civilian in September 1997," he wrote in a book that Marine Corps University Press is publishing this month, seven months after the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was formally repealed.

"I am a patriotic American," Choat wrote. "I am an officer of Marines who loves country, Corps and my Marines. I am doing my best to serve proudly and honorably. And I happen to be gay."

The book, titled "The End of Don't Ask, Don't Tell: The Impact in Studies and Personal Essays by Service Members and Veterans," was edited by Tammy Schultz of the Marine Corps War College and journalist J. Ford Huffman, and includes 27 essays and some academic studies.

It's perhaps most noteworthy because of the source: No branch of the armed services was more skeptical about repealing the policy on gays in the military than the Marines.

After several months, the impact, according to the military, was summed up by Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby: "Impact?" he said. "Negligible, if that."

Across the military, retention is high. Recruitment is at 100 percent of goals. Military officials say they're unaware of any discipline issues relating to gays serving openly.

More than that, critics are harder to find. Some, such as Arizona Sen. John McCain, didn't respond to requests for comments on the impact of the repeal.

The fight over the repeal began in advocacy groups almost as soon as President Bill Clinton signed "don't ask, don't tell" into law in 1993, and it highlighted the political, ethical and religious animosity surrounding gay rights in America. It intensified in 2010 as Congress took up the debate and then as the repeal was certified last September.

Some opponents of repeal saw a system that they thought was working and wondered, "Why fix it?" Others feared that allowing gays to serve openly could ruin unit cohesion. An Army Times survey before the repeal found that about two in three service members polled expected at least some impact on their units.

More extreme views envisioned gay pride efforts in war zones and the destruction of family values on stateside bases. They foresaw a flood of veterans heading for the exits and a drought of new recruits.

The commandant of the Marines, Gen. James Amos, was among the most critical, warning Congress against repealing the policy in the midst of two wars because commanders already had enough on their plates.

Among the staunchest critics then and now of repealing the law is Elaine Donnelly, the president of the Center for Military Readiness, a private advocacy group in Michigan. She said studies the military quoted were biased, primarily out of a fear that a politically correct Congress would slash military funding if the Pentagon stood up in opposition to the repeal.

"It's more than a bias — it's a mandate" that studies must support the repeal, she said.

She said it was far too soon to see any effects, and that a bad economy had masked what would be seen in coming years as deep problems with retention and recruiting.

However, studies of other nations that have removed roadblocks to gays serving openly suggest that critics may be running out of steam. The book includes studies that show that one year after other countries changed their policies, the issue was no longer controversial.

In the book, Nora Bensahel, the deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan research center, wrote about the lessons of five foreign militaries after they repealed laws that had kept gay men and women from military service. As was the case in the United States, "military personnel in all five countries predicted that allowing gay people to serve openly would harm military effectiveness, recruiting and retention. ... Yet none of these consequences actually occurred."

In Canada, which removed the ban in 1992, "today, the only significant debate about sexual orientation focuses on whether it is fair that the military pays for gender reassignment surgery but does not pay for Lasik vision corrections surgery," Bensahel wrote.

In another essay in the book, Marine Maj. Dirk Diener noted that after 17 years, repealing "don't ask, don't tell" was "amazing."

"I never believed I would serve in the Marine Corps and be able to be myself," he wrote. "So I've made the decision to come out. I won't be wearing tiara or boa, and I won't leave a trail of glitter. I am just tired of lying."