NEAL CONAN, host:

Now, time for the opinion page. And today, we have more of an op-action than an op-ed. Last week, a group of more than 100 retired military leaders called for an end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. They put their signatures on a statement released by the Palm Center, a think tank at the University of California in Santa Barbara. It argues for the repeal of the policy that was put into effect in 1993 under President Bill Clinton. And we'd especially like to hear from those of you who are current and former members of the military. Today is a time to repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. Retired Rear Admiral James Barnett is one of the 104 retired military leaders who signed the statement. He joins us in Studio 3A. Thanks very much for coming in.

Rear Admiral JAMES BARNETT (Military Retiree): Neal, thanks for having me.

CONAN: And in 1993, where were you and what did you think of the policy then announced by President Clinton?

Rear Admiral BARNETT: Well, at that time, I was actually not in the military. I was running for Congress in the northern district of Mississippi, the First Congressional District of Mississippi. And I have to admit that at that time, I don't think I saw the unfairness of the policy. And to my embarrassment, I kind of shilly-shallied on it. In ensuing years, though, it became very clear to me that this is an unfair policy. And in the op-ed that I wrote for the Washington Post, I also gave the other reason. It became clear to me as I became a flag officer that not only is it unfair to gays and lesbians, it's not fair to the military. It's not good for military readiness.

CONAN: Not fair for the military, how was that?

Rear Admiral BARNETT: Well, right now, we have about 65 thousand gays and lesbians according to the Palm Center, and this is a scientific study. They looked at the actual numbers, although we can't actually go through obviously and ask every member if they're gay or lesbian. But about 65 thousand members, currently serving in our armed forces throughout all ranks. We could not do without them. Literally, if they all left at this particular time, we wouldn't be able to make some of our commitments. It would put incredible strain on an already strained military across the globe. We lose about three thousand gays and lesbians each year because they just decide that it's not comfortable here, I don't like living under this strain. I don't like having a situation where I can't even talk about my family, what happens at home. So that's a tremendous loss. We have to go out and find new people to do that and we're under stress with our retention and our recruiting. And then there's just the fact that some of these folks are highly trained people. We're talking about pilots who we put in a million dollars worth of training into, surgeons, linguists. It takes us a long time to get the experience, to make someone a master sergeant and when they're gone to us, it takes us a long time to grow another one. So just from a military standpoint, this is not a good idea.

CONAN: That's a human resources policy argument for a repeal. There are moral issues involved here. There are people's lives involved here.

Rear Admiral BARNETT: That's right. I got to be on an NPR show program a few weeks now, a month ago, I guess. We had a call in from a young woman whose partner had been injured in Iraq. And she could not go visit her in the hospital because if she did, it would not only mean that she'd had a life-threatening injury, but she might also lose her job when it became apparent that she was in a lesbian relationship. We have spent so much in the military. We recognize now that military members need their family's support. They needed to get ready to go to combat and when they return to combat, we need that family healing, that family love. Yet for these 65,000 gays and lesbians in the military, that's absolutely denied. We do not provide that to them. So that's a moral issue for me.

CONAN: As you know, Congress recently held hearings on this. The first time Congress held hearings on this interestingly over the last 15 years and there were many who said the policy ought to be repealed. But there was one, Brian Jones, a retired sergeant major in the army, who argued that allowing gays to serve publicly could hurt recruiting, allowing, and I am quoting here, "allowing homosexuality in the military will cause unnecessary sexual tension and disruptions to good order, morale, discipline, and unit cohesion that would erode the very qualities of military service that currently appeal to potential recruits." Does he have a point?

Mr. BARNETT: You know I understand that point of view and I've heard it mentioned several times. I don't know how much there is behind it, particularly when you look at the studies that have been done - the RAND Corporation back in 1993 time frame looked at this and found that that would not be a problem. You know we had a very public - a lot of people probably would have seen Sergeant Darren Manzella on "60 Minutes" within the last year. Here is someone who came out to his military combat unit. He was a medic in Iraq. Came out and they all knew about it. They supported him, but they didn't out him. They continued to work together. When he became out, I guess - when he came out and was, in essence, being ushered out of the military, they also support him and they still support him. So I'm not positive that the sergeant - I forgot what…

CONAN: Sergeant Major.

Mr. BARNETT: Sergeant major is correct on that. I think what that represents is the old view. And yes, this is challenging to people who have not thought about this before. But for 15 years, we've had gays in the military. It's legal for them to be in the military. Now, what we're talking about is how to make it more effective and how to make it fair.

CONAN: Our guest, Retired Admiral James Barnett. We're talking about Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Email us, talk@npr.org. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. We want to hear from retired and current members of the military. Today is a time for Don't Ask, Don't Tell to be repealed. We'll begin with Alex. Alex is with us from Mankato in Minnesota.

ALEX (Caller): Yes. Hello. I'm a specialist in the Minnesota Guard currently. And while personally, I'm a Christian and I'm morally opposed to the idea of homosexuality, I guess, I don't feel that there's any reason to have Don't Ask, Don't Tell because homosexual citizens in this country are just as capable of fighting and dying next to each other as heterosexual citizens that we have. And I've even known homosexual members of the military who are not obviously out to their commanders but they were out among the rest of us and it was never an issue. We never cared, and I just don't see why we're trying to cut off a section of the population when right now we need as many soldiers as we can get.

CONAN: And Alex, I assume in the National Guard you've been to Iraq or Afghanistan?

ALEX: Actually, I have not. I have been - I just came back from Kosovo this past summer but I have to assume that at some in the near future, I will be seeing a tour of duty in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

CONAN: And the damage to unit cohesion, you don't see that as a threat at all.

ALEX: You know, I really don't. When you spend this much time together, you get to know each other fairly well whether or not they officially outed. You will usually know within the unit who is gay and who is not.

CONAN: Alex, thanks very much for the phone call and good luck to you.

ALEX: Thank you.

CONAN: I appreciate it. And that's - go ahead.

Mr. BARNETT: Alex, thank you for your service, and those are great comments. This shows I think that the strength of mind of our current military. I mean obviously, Alex is someone who has strong religious convictions on that that they tell him a certain thing about homosexuality and yet he has the openness of mind plus the experience. I mean he served with gay or lesbian members - I don't know which it was in his particular case - and he sees that we're able to work together on that.

This generation has grown up very differently than mine. I mean, I'm an old guy. When I went to high school, there were no gays or lesbians. Of course, there were, but at that time, it was worse to be a gay or lesbian than it was to be a communist or Marxist or something like that. Now, this generation has grown up with images on TV, in media, they've known gays and lesbians high school, in college, stuff like that. There's an acceptance there and understanding. It's a very different age and it would be a mistake to impose, I think in essence, the prejudices of the past on the current military.

CONAN: Let's go next to Donald, Donald with us from Wilmington in North Carolina.

DONALD (Caller): Yes. I'm a retired colonel from the Air Force and Army, and I served more than 30 years in the reserve. And being in the reserve especially in California, where I served most of my years, my very best and closest friends were often homosexuals. However, my reservation with Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the last part is just rarely, rarely ever communicated by the media is don't pursue. That was Mr. Clinton's idea to limit from the pursuing because I sat on investigation boards, and the admiral can share this with me also, that sexual harassment was a big problem in the '80s and the '90s as we integrated females. And so, the military wound up spending millions and millions of dollars investigating the sexual harassment claims, which I'm telling you, whenever we have open homosexuality in the military, it will abound. And so that's my big reservation. All the points are well taken that the admiral made and the young gentleman, those are all excellent points. Generally, the males that we have that served with us were fine soldiers. They were dedicated patriots. And so no one ever really complained about them as long as there was no pursuit. The pursuit can become a real big problem. And I hate to point fingers at females, but they have a much larger liberal view about their homosexuality as compared to the males. And so it becomes often very complicated.

CONAN: That wasn't my understanding of don't pursue. Don't pursue as I understood was that the military would not conduct witch hunts to try to find people and…

DONALD: It works both ways. It works both ways that the military doesn't pursue but the homosexuality, that your sexual preference is kept to yourself and you're not to be pursuing one another.

CONAN: Well, no one should harass anybody sexually. But any case, admiral?

Mr. BARNETT: Right. Well, you know, the colonel has an excellent point. But Don't Ask, Don't Tell repealing that will not affect those articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that prevent and prohibit sexual harassment regardless of orientation. And so those investigations would occur anyway. I know what he's talking about. I mean there have been seem incidents in the military of sexual harassment, both heterosexual and homosexual. Don't Ask, Don't Tell lifts the prohibition from revealing your sexual orientation but it'll always be illegal to any type of misconduct where you're harassing or discriminating based on sex or sexual orientation.

CONAN: We're talking with Retired Rear Admiral James Barnett about 104 retired military leaders to sign a statement calling for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell on the opinion page. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's talk with Bill. Bill with us on the line from Oshkosh in Wisconsin.

BILL (Caller): Hi. Great topic. I am an active duty combat veteran and enlisted in the time when Don't Ask, Don't Tell was implemented, and I'm currently reservist. And I think that it is a wrong policy to begin with, and definitely should not be repealed because the thing is that human beings are human beings, and we are asking a whole lot of these young men and women who come into the service, and they come in and we ask them to change their entire paradigm and probably look at the world and feel in a very orderly structure. We require them to live up to the UCMJ and the Code of Conduct which includes a ban on adultery and other such things. But human beings are human beings, and the sexual drive regardless of orientation causes problems. And I have seen it time and time again in integrated male and female units where you have just, to put it in a modern colloquialism a lot of drama around who's dating or doing who and what's going on, and that takes away from mission effectiveness. And if you bring the homosexual aspect of that into the just out and about forth that, you'll increase the drama that much more, and take that much more away from mission effectiveness. And you know that's a broad way of talking about the different breakdowns and military order and everything. And that is why I didn't agree with Don't Ask, Don't Tell in its inception, and I don't think that it should be repealed. Thank you very much.

CONAN: All right, Bill. Thanks very much for the call. Before we let you go, admiral. I wanted to ask you two things. One of which is what do you think the incoming Obama administration is going to do? The president-elect has said that he does not agree with Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

Mr. BARNETT: You know, of course, I don't speak for the Obama administration, but I have heard them speak about yes, they're against Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But I think you'll see a very orderly progression as they study it and ease into it. I don't think it'll be an executive order on the second day. It couldn't be because actually it takes legislation. But I do think you'll see him gathering together advisers and getting all their views. Now currently, there's a great bill. House Resolution 1246 is currently introduced. I think it has over 144 sponsors. It has not been introduced on the Senate side yet, so I think you would see maybe within the first three or four months an introduction to the Senate side. And so while it may not be the first thing that the Obama administration does, I do think it's something that they're going to have on the list to take some action on in the first year.

CONAN: And finally, is this a position that you would be happy embracing if you were planning to run again for Congress on the first...

Mr. BARNETT: Oh, I'm not going to run. No, no. I'm fully - and my wife's probably listening. I'm fully inoculated against that. I like supporting other...

CONAN: Well, nevertheless the point being, is this something that can win popular opinion in the places like the first district of Mississippi?

Mr. BARNETT: Well, I can't speak about any particular place, but its just like Alex from Minnesota said, I think attitudes are changing. I think the poll from earlier this year shows that somewhere between 70 and 75 percent of Americans think that gays and lesbians should be able to serve openly in the military. So I think attitudes are changing. I don't think that that's going to be the third rail that it's been in the past.

CONAN: James Barnett, thanks very much for your time today. I appreciate it.

Mr. BARNETT: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: James Barnett, a retired rear admiral in the United States Navy. His name appears alongside 103 other top-level military leaders on a statement calling for the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. He was kind enough to join us today here in Studio 3A. Tomorrow, Ted Koppel will join us. We'll focus on how the incoming Obama administration might deal with the challenge of Iran. Be with us then. I'm Neal Conan. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News in Washington.

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