Note: This is not a political or social screed. I am not advocating immediate changes in law. this is really how I have seen military culture evolving over the 27 plus years of my career. These patently are simply my observations and have both a bit of seriousness as well as humor. I am most definitely a dyed in the wool heterosexual, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I think that someone without a political axe to grind on either the gay rights or anti-gay rights movement who is in the military have to have a say. I know that I could be wading into Vietnam here but here I go….
When I enlisted in August of 1981, gays were not allowed to serve in the military. It was even on the recruiting form. Applicants were asked under the penalty of making a false official statement “Are you a homosexual?” Who can forget the scene in Stripes where Bill Murray and Harold Ramis are asked by the Army recruiter “Are either of you homosexual?” Their reply was a hoot. They looked at each other and Bill Murray replied “you mean like flaming or…” The recruiter then said “It’s a standard question we have to ask.” Harold Ramis then quipped “We’re not homosexual, but we’re willing to learn.” Bill Murray adding “Would they send us to someplace special?” The recruiter then ends the exchange “I guess that’s a no on both.” It was a hilarious scene as we all had to answer the question.
Plain and simple if a person lied about being homosexual and was later discovered he was in deep dung, even an accusation of being gay could result in being charged under the UCMJ or at the very least investigated. Soldiers could be taken to Article 15 proceedings (Captain’s Mast in the Navy, Office Hours in the Marines) or possibly even a courts-martial. Depending on the charges one could recieve a punitive discharge, such a Bad Conduct Discharge, or administrative discharge under a General, General under Other than Honorable, or Other than Honorable conditions.
Back in my days as a company XO and company commander in the 1980s I had a number of soldiers, male and female who I knew that were gay. I had grown up in California, had gay friends and even when someone was hiding it I pretty much knew. If I was homophobic I could have made accusations, began investigations and made these soldiers lives hell. At that point in time there were a good amount of people in the military who would of done just that. These soldiers were exemplary in the way that they conducted themselves at work. They were professional, knowledgeable and I never once had to take any of them to article 15 proceedings for any reason. They never refused missions, they were exceptionally responsible, and good leaders. As far as their personal lives they were discreet. I am sure that if they stayed in the military that they probably maintained that balance. I don’t know what happened to them later on, but they were great. I took over company command as a very junior 1st Lieutenant. The unit had the highest drug abuse rate in Europe with more disciplinary problems than you could shake a stick at. I wasn’t about to go after soldiers who were not giving me problems, I had far more pressing matters on my plate. I guess you could say that I was exercising the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy 7-8 years before it became policy. My philosophy then as is is now, is that if someone is willing to serve honorably and endure the hardships and dangers of the lives of military professionals then they should be able to regardless of the way that they are wired. My issue then and now applies to both homosexuals and heterosexuals who are predatory or push themselves sexually on other soldiers causing problems with good order and discipline and unit cohesion. I have to say had far more problems with my heterosexual soldiers in this regard than my homosexual soldiers. My homosexual soldiers were discreet in their personal lives and very professional, some of my heterosexuals were neither discreet nor professional in thier sexual lives and relationships.
When I served as a personnel officer at the Academy of Health Sciences I became CINC AIDS. I was the most junior of the Medical Personnel Officers, serving as the Training Brigade Adjutant. It was at this time that we began having soldiers test positive for HIV and develop AIDS. I worked with representatives of the Army Surgeon General’s Office to develop personnel procedures for HIV positive soldiers. These policies gave them the opportunity to serve honorably and at the same time ensured that they did not endanger others through their sexual conduct. Since I was the junior guy I got to deal with all the cases of officers who had been diagnosed with HIV. No one else wanted anything to do with them. While the world around me raged with apocalyptic screeds of those convinced that this was God’s judgment on homosexual; those who prophsyed how this virus would become a pandemic infecting people willy-nilly through casual contact, I dealt with real people. These officers who wore the same uniform as me. Some I knew were gay, but some were straight. When an officer came to my office who was not on our brigade staff and the door closed, there was a good chance that the visitor had just received the news that they had an infection that would cause a process that would kill them. They had received a death sentence. I was a Christian and knew that I was going to be going to seminary after this assignment. I could not see how Jesus could reject these folks. While assigned there we had the first trial of a soldier who was intentionally attempting to spread the HIV virus among his coworkers. He was a heterosexual and was a sexual predator. He was taken to courts-martial and convicted. As he was now in the latter stages of the disease process and battling the opportunistic infections which actually kill you he was sentenced to 6 months in Leavenworth. I doubt that he lived that long. The experience of dealing with these officers taught me the torment that many homosexuals go through. Following my time in the Army while in seminary and after it I worked in a variety of social service organizations and hospitals. I knew many and work alongside many gays without a problem.
When President Clinton enacted the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy there was public outcry, especially in the military, I had no problem with the policy as I think that everyone should be somewhat discreet in their sexual habits, especially in the military. Regardless of sexual orientation it is always important for military members to conduct themselves in professional manner, and not only in sexual matters. It is always a matter of good order and discipline. While the policy made no one happy, gay activists did not think it went far enough and anti-gay forces hated it, I think it was a wise policy. The President may have erred in the way that he announced it, but I think it was still the right thing to do at the time.
Since then our society as a whole has changed in its view and treatment of homosexuals. There is a lot more acceptance of them now and many more people are openly gay. I think that those who hid that aspect of their lives in earlier times now feel safe enough to come out. Yes there are those who vehemently oppose any form of equal treatment for homosexuals, but there is a lot more acceptance. There have been famous military leaders who were gay including Frederick the Great who was forced to marry but kind of liked other guys better. Lord Kitchner and Sir Hector Archibald MacDonald, both distinguished officers were homosexual, MacDonald committed suicide when notified that he would be courts-martialed for his homosexuality. There were constant rumors when I was in the Army about senior leaders who were suspected of being gay. While a majority of military members polled opposed the Clinton administration change of policy, it seems to have worked. There still are objections by gay rights activists that the policy is too restrictive and opponents who desire for it to be repealed, but in large part there is no problem. Other countries the British, Canadians and Israelis and a number of other European nations all allow homosexuals to serve in the military. Contrary to claims that the policy would destroy the military there is nothing to support that. In fact the US Military has been more heavily engaged on multiple fronts since the policy went into place and done well despite being undermanned and often over-committed.
The Rand Corporation had a study of how allowing gays to serve would impact the military suggested the following was of ensuring that such a change would not endanger good order and discipline or unit cohesion, the two most critical aspects of any change. They suggested:
- A requirement that all members of the military services conduct themselves in ways that enhance good order and discipline. Such conduct includes showing respect and tolerance for others. While heterosexuals would be asked to tolerate the presence of known homosexuals, all personnel, including acknowledged homosexuals, must understand that the military environment is no place to advertise one’s sexual orientation.
- A clear statement that inappropriate conduct could destroy order and discipline, and that individuals should not engage in such conduct.
- A list of categories of inappropriate conduct, including personal harassment (physical or verbal conduct toward others, based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or physical features), abuse of authority, displays of affection, and explicit discussions of sexual practices, experience, or desires.
- Application of these standards by leaders at every level of the chain of command, in a way that ensures that unit performance is maintained.
It has been over 15 years since the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy went into effect. I have noted that while some military members still vehemently oppose gays serving in the military, that quite a few, officer and enlisted, especially those under the age of 30 are much more tolerant than were those of my era. I was talking with a couple of military doctors and a hospital corpsman, all of us committed heterosexuals, not that there’s anything wrong with that the other day and the subject came up in a humorous way when discussing ways to get out of the military. The corpsman noted that saying you were gay was one way, and I said, at least for now it was.
As we talked we all agreed that anyone willing to serve in the military at this point of time should be able to so long as they meet the professional standards of the services. This is no gravy train. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen are constantly deployed and putting themselves in harms way. If a gay wants to commit his or her life to the service of this country, who am I to object?
From a practical and somewhat humorous standpoint we have to acknowledge a number of things about gays, especially gay men. Many are very well educated successful professionals. Most seem to have a far better sense of taste and style than most of us on the heterosexual team and quite a few are very physically fit and health conscious. Anyone who has ever served in the military knows that we are not known for the greatest living conditions, food or ascetics. Military housing, both barracks and family quarters tend to be rather boring, and often substandard. There is not a lot of imagination in most military dining facilities, and the ascetics and design of many of our buildings and bases leaves a lot to be desired. Can you imagine if we let these guys serve. Our bases would look a lot better and well kept. Our living quarters would be nicer and more ascetically pleasing. The food would definitely go up in quality and we would get some highly qualified folks in the service, especially in some of the more scientific and medical specialties. As a married heterosexual who is a uniter and not a divider I see all of this as a win win situation. Who could be against that? I would have loved to drive onto bases where buildings and landscaping were done well, where you didn’t feel like you were driving onto a prison. I’d love to work in buildings where there was some sense of style and artistry, where when you walked in you didn’t think you had walked onto the set of a WWII movie. I would love a nice selection of food that was both healthy and tasty.
Will this happen anytime soon? I don’t know. I suspect that at some point the President and Congress will address the issue and if it is changed I expect little practical change in the military. We will keep deploying and doing our job, some people will be upset and some won’t, but I think there has been enough societal change over the last 27 years to allow this to happen relatively smoothly. Will some people be unhappy, will crusades be mounted against it by some? I think that there will be and some of this may take an ugly turn. However I think that this will come more from the outside, but that in the end the military will survive and continue to do well. After all, this is all well above my pay grade.