Future Of 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Stirs Debate Within Military Circles

The two-highest ranking military officials testified Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee and called for an end to the ban on openly gay and lesbian service members. The controversial 1993 policy "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" allows gays in the military to serve as long as they do not disclose their sexual orientation. Host Michel Martin talks with Elaine Donnelly, of the Center for Military Readiness which is a non-partisan think tank that does not support the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, and Leo Shane, III, Washington Bureau reporter for the independent military publication Stars and Stripes.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the auto industry's woes have crippled city budgets across the Midwest. We'll hear about how one town, Pontiac, Michigan, is struggling to make ends meet.

But first, Don't Ask, Don't Tell. In dramatic testimony on Capitol Hill yesterday, Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told lawmakers that allowing gay and lesbian service members to serve openly is the right thing to do.

Admiral MIKE MULLEN (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.

MARTIN: Defense secretary Robert Gates also testified, echoing the call by the president, who had vowed to tackle this issue during his State of the Union Address.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): I fully support the president's decision. The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we must - how we best prepare for it.

MARTIN: Don't Ask, Don't Tell allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they do not disclose their sexual orientation. It's been the subject of consistent criticism by gay rights activists since it was approved 17 years ago under President Bill Clinton. Critics say the policy has led to the discharge of valued and highly trained service members, more than 13,000 to date. But others say allowing gays to serve openly would impair morale, erode discipline, and might impair the military's ability to recruit and retain others.

Previously on this program we've heard from strong critics of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, so in a moment we'll speak with Elaine Donnelly. She's president of the Center For Military Readiness - that's a nonpartisan think tank which says it's focusing on promoting sound military policies in the armed services. Her organization opposes repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. First, though, we speak to Leo Shane III. He's a reporter for the Stars and Stripes newspaper. That's an independent newspaper that covers military issues and has been covering this issue closely. Welcome to the program, thanks for joining us.

Mr. LEO SHANE III (Reporter, Stars and Stripes Newspaper): Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: We have been trying to figure out what the rest of - we've heard from advocates of the repeal. We're...

Mr. SHANE: Sure.

MARTIN: ...trying to figure out what other people feel about this, particularly people who are currently serving, people who might be serving in combat positions and frankly it's been very hard to do.

Mr. SHANE: Sure and...

MARTIN: We've put out a call on Facebook, we've put out through all our usual systems, and it's just been a deafening silence. I would like, firstly, to ask why that is and do you have a sense of how (unintelligible) feels.

Mr. SHANE: Well, yeah, it is a difficulty and you heard both Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen refer to that a little in yesterday's hearing. Part of the problem is that a lot of military members are reluctant to speak out against what their commanding officers might be in favor of.

We, from our perspective, from what we hear from troops down range it's all anecdotal but it's quite a mix of folks who would love to see the repeal take place tomorrow. Plenty of folks who feel comfortable with the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law, it tends to skew a little younger for the folks who have no problem serving alongside openly gay service members; older ones, in general, do still have some concerns.

But, there hasn't been a survey done. There hasn't been a poll. And frankly, the proponents of Don't Ask, Don't Tell still seem to be just retired - the vocal ones, at least - seem to be retired service members. There were 1000 flag officers and general officers who did sign a petition, send that over to the president...

MARTIN: Saying what?

Mr. SHANE: ...last year. Saying that they supported the current policy and that they - they believe that it's, keeps good order and that changing it would hurt the morale of troops.

MARTIN: Say it again, 1000...

Mr. SHANE: It was 1000, yeah, 1000 general officers and flag officers, all retired. Now that the advocates for repeal will point out the many of these folks are long retired. A lot of them served in the '60s, '70s and '80s. But that was a voice on the other side.

Frankly the folks who have been in favor of the repeal have just been much more vocal, have found folks like Choi, like Fehrenbach, some of the, I guess, more poignant stories of folks who were discharged, were forced out because of their sexual orientation.

MARTIN: And Leo, I'm going to ask you to stay with us. I want to bring in another voice, now, Elaine Donnelly. She is president of the Center For Military Readiness - that's a nonpartisan think tank focusing on promoting sound military policies in the armed services and her organization is against the repeal of the policy. And she's with us now on the phone.

Elaine, is your organization specifically focused on Don't Ask, Don't Tell, or are there other issues that you address that are matters of readiness?

Ms. ELAINE DONNELLY (President, Center For Military Readiness): We deal with all the military social issues in the military. And they are extremely controversial because of the political correct factor that Leo Shane was just mentioning. I've been getting lots of messages from people who say, look, if this law is repealed I'm out of here. I will not re-enlist. But these people cannot speak openly and certainly they won't now that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, in a presentation that I thought personally was embarrassing, for him to say, we dont know what this is going to do but Im for it anyway.

MARTIN: Yeah, can--

Ms. DONNELLY: And for Secretary Gates to say, well, we know what the president wants. So, we're going to do it, and the question is not whether but how and if -rather, how and when we're going to do it. That was embarrassing - certainly demoralizing to the troops.

MARTIN: Elaine, can I ask you this though. Is your objection, your organization's objection...

Ms. DONNELLY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...to repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell based on the morality of what you consider homosexual conduct to be.

Ms. DONNELLY: The issue is...

MARTIN: And the reason I ask that, is that I think it's important to tell, let civilians know that the military does legislate morality in ways that is not considered appropriate in the civilian world. For example, adultery is a crime in the military and in the civilian world it is not. So, I just want to ask you, though, is your objection based on the morality of...

Ms. DONNELLY: Your question...

MARTIN: Yeah.

Ms. DONNELLY: ...makes it sound like a religious issue...

MARTIN: Yeah.

Ms. DONNELLY: ...and it's not. The law is entirely secular in its language and I invite you to read it.

MARTIN: No, I have read it.

Ms. DONNELLY: All about...

MARTIN: I'm just asking you what the...

Ms. DONNELLY: It is all about military effectiveness.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DONNELLY: It is not about emotion. We heard not one argument from Admiral Mullen yesterday saying that this is a good thing for the military in terms of military effectiveness. He talked about his own emotion. How it bothers him that people have to lie. Perhaps he ought to look at the actual statute, because the statute says that people who are in the military who are gay are not eligible to be in the military if they are gay.

MARTIN: The purpose is to repeal the statute, so...

Ms. DONNELLY: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...therefore people have a right to discuss...

Ms. DONNELLY: To replace it with something that people really don't talk about the way they should. The new LGBT Law, Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Law, for the military - what it means is people who do see this as a moral issue, as I said the statute is in secular terms, but starting with chaplains of the major religions or anyone who belongs to those major religions, they will have to make a choice.

You either embrace the LGBT agenda, fully, and you teach it to others, or you will be denied promotions, you will be marked down on equal opportunity, you'll be forced out of the military. Thousands of people will be forced out involuntarily...

MARTIN: But

Ms. DONNELLY: ...because they don't support this rule.

MARTIN: But there are people being forced out now because they do want to serve openly and are gay or lesbians. So, can I ask you to tell me the...

Ms. DONNELLY: The people who are being - the people who are not...

MARTIN: But, Elaine, can I just...

Ms. DONNELLY: ...eligible to be in the military and are discharged honorably are less than one percent. Less than one percent. Compared to...

MARTIN: Elaine, we appreciate the opportunity to hear from a person who supports the policy. So, I'd like to ask the substance of why you believe that - and members of your organization believe that this would be detrimental to discipline and readiness.

Ms. DONNELLY: Because of what it says in the actual law. It depends on unit cohesion. For the secretary of defense to say that if there's a problem with unit cohesion, we'll find a way to mitigate it. Excuse me, he is the secretary of defense. For him to say, we're going to make your job more difficult and more dangerous, troops - and you'll have to solve the problem yourself. In essence, that's what he was saying.

MARTIN: What do you...

Ms. DONNELLY: I thought it was outrageous for Secretary Gates to say that.

MARTIN: I understand. What do you say to those who make the analogy to integrating the troops in the 1950s, who say there were many people who had negative attitudes towards African-Americans, who...

Ms. DONNELLY: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...did not wish to serve alongside them.

Ms. DONNELLY: That's the weakest...

MARTIN: Because they thought they were inferior beings. And that they had deeply held beliefs which also led them to not wish to serve alongside troops.

Ms. DONNELLY: This is the weakest argument going.

MARTIN: What do you say to that?

Ms. DONNELLY: The weakest argument going, because racial separation and prejudice was irrational and it still is. The military took it on head-on because it was irrational and we needed those good soldiers who are already in the military, they just had to attack the prejudice. However, separation of men and women in the military, in areas involving sexual privacy is not only rational, it is desirable and certainly customary in the civilian world as well as the military. The two cannot be equated.

MARTIN: But talk more about...

Ms. DONNELLY: This is not a civil rights issue and there's no constitutional right to be on the armed forces.

MARTIN: Can I ask you - I take your point - can I ask you though again, from a force readiness issue because the fact is most people have not served in a military at this point...

Ms. DONNELLY: Hmm.

MARTIN: ...in our history.

Ms. DONNELLY: Right.

MARTIN: So, I want to ask you why again do you believe that this is a force readiness issue? What is it about homosexuals serving openly that will be detrimental to the performance of our troops?

Ms. DONNELLY: For the same reason that when you create a hostile work environment for women in the military, it is harmful to their morale and everyone around them. You need good order and discipline, not indiscipline. For the secretary of Defense to say that, well, if you get outed by a third person, then somehow that makes the law irrelevant, he really doesn't seem to understand the importance here. When you get people involved in issues of sexuality - and now you're going to have a whole new set of problems - you are going to have male-male issues and female-female issues in addition to the ones we already have even though we try very hard not to have those kinds of problems. There has to be a choice made: What is the civil rights model that they are going to follow? Are we going to integrate everybody together in one big group and pretending that sexuality doesn't matter or is it going to be separate but equal?

MARTIN: Well...

Ms. DONNELLY: Are we going to have quad-sex arrangements and how is that going to work on submarines by the way?

MARTIN: Okay, Leo, let's hear from you on this. What are the brass saying about these issues of how practically this would be implemented?

Mr. SHANE: Well, and that's part of what we heard at the hearing yesterday. Secretary Gates appointed a new commission to look into some of these issues, specifically some of the ones that Elaine is talking about. Will there need to be separate living quarters? Will there need to be changes in housing allowances and the way benefits are handed out? Will there be other, I believe they called them unintended consequences. So, frankly they, you know, lots of folks don't know. Elaine obviously has her opinions on it. The folks on the other sides will tell you that it's not as big of an issue and that the troops will find a way to work through this and to work together.

MARTIN: What's the timeframe being contemplated for assessing this question and for trying to implement this new policy, recognizing that legislation has to occur as well?

Mr. SHANE: Secretary Gates yesterday...

Ms. DONNELLY: It does not have to occur. This is a problem that does not need to be made worse by repealing the law and replacing it with an LGBT law. That was the point that Senator McCain was trying to make. You don't repeal this by fiat. We have a Congress. If those who would otherwise volunteer for the military and their families are opposed, should we have same-sex couples in family housing? All of these issues are things that the American people need to decide...

MARTIN: Elaine, we appreciate your input on this. Elaine Donnelly is president of the Center for Military Readiness, that's a nonpartisan think tank focusing on sound military policies in the armed services, that's the Center's description. She is also a former member of the Pentagon's defense advisory committee on women in the services and the 1992 presidential commission on the assignment of women in armed services. And she joined us from Livonia, Michigan. Elaine, thank you. Leo, please, a final answer to that question of the timeframe here?

Mr. SHANE: Sure. What Secretary Gates laid out yesterday were two different timeframes. The first is a 45-day review of the legal basis for discharging folks who are outed by a third party under Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The other one is a - by the end of this year, he expects a report back from this independent panel outlining some of the problems and looking ahead. In terms of when Don't Ask, Don't Tell will be repealed, we still don't know that.

MARTIN: Leo Shane III, is a Washington bureau reporter for the independent military publication Stars and Stripes. He joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much.

Mr. SHANE: Thank you.

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