Soldiers Mixed On 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Repeal President Obama is expected to sign the repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy into law on Wednesday. At military bases around the country from Fort Drum in New York to Fort Campbell in Kentucky, soldiers express both nonchalance and worry that openly gay troops will be a distraction.
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Soldiers Mixed On 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Repeal

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Soldiers Mixed On 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Repeal

Soldiers Mixed On 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Repeal

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


I'm Audie Cornish.

And we begin this hour with the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell." That's the policy that for 17 years has prohibited gay and lesbian members of the military from serving openly. We learned today that President Obama is expected to sign the repeal into law on Wednesday after the Senate voted for it over the weekend.

SIEGEL: The Pentagon's top leaders support the change, but we wanted to hear from military families and service members themselves. In a moment, we'll hear from an active-duty military officer who is gay but not yet serving openly.

First, though, we go to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, with Blake Farmer of member station WPLN.

BLAKE FARMER: More than 17,000 soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division are at war right now, but thousands more are waiting to ship out from this expansive Army post on the Tennessee-Kentucky border.

One officer told me this about the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell": No one has any issues with it at all. This former brigade commander did not, however, want to go on the record.

Some enlisted soldiers didn't mind sharing their thoughts.

Private DEVERE ARTIS (101st Airborne Division): I know numerous gay soldiers that I serve with, that are in my company, that I fight side by side with.

FARMER: Private Devere Artis will deploy to Afghanistan in March. At 22 years old, he's already served two tours - one in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Artis says deployments mean close quarters.

Pvt. ARTIS: I would say 10 percent of the time you're over there, you're going to be nude in front of another soldier, washing up, changing your clothes, getting yourself ready for work.

FARMER: Artis says he's fine with lifting the ban on serving openly, but mostly so he'll know for sure who is gay. He says he still doesn't want homosexual behavior in his face.

Pvt. ARTIS: I mean, you like flowers and daisies, like flowers and daisies, but don't do it while we're trying to stick together so that we can come back alive.

FARMER: One enlisted soldier told me she fears infantry members who come out will be harassed.

The Department of Defense survey regarding "don't ask, don't tell" indicates broad support or indifference toward repeal, but frontline troops are more mixed. Nearly 50 percent of the Army's combat elements said repeal would have a negative effect.

Miguel Lopez is retired after being injured in combat. He joined the Army after serving in the Navy, where he says it seemed more acceptable to be homosexual. For the infantry?

Mr. MIGUEL LOPEZ (Retired, U.S. Army and U.S. Navy): Now, that's a whole different world right there. I think you should know who you have on your team. You should know, because when the moment comes...

FARMER: Lopez stops himself, saying there's no reason to believe gay soldiers are any less brave. There are combat troops who see no problems.

Specialist Brad Baldwin leaves for Afghanistan next year.

Specialist BRAD BALDWIN (101st Airborne Division): Still going to go do my job and do my duty and nothing is going to change just because some policy changes and somebody who's living a different lifestyle than me.

FARMER: The commander of the 101st Airborne has said his troops have bigger concerns. Major General John Campbell told reporters this fall that for a soldier on the frontlines in Afghanistan, repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" is probably the farthest thing from their mind.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer outside Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN: I'm David Sommerstein at the Salmon Run Mall, a few miles away from Fort Drum in upstate New York.

(Soundbite of bell ringing)

Unidentified Woman: Thank you very much. And God bless you. You have a very merry Christmas now.

SOMMERSTEIN: Amidst the bell-ringers and Christmas shoppers, one thing is for sure: even talking about "don't ask, don't tell" makes people uncomfortable.

Mr. ED SMITH: I stay quiet on that. I don't have much to say about it.

SOMMERSTEIN: Ed and Reese Smith lug two big bags from a hardware store. They say making something so personal so political is awkward. Even with gay friends, they say they don't talk about it.

Mr. SMITH: They don't bother me. I don't bother them.

Ms. REESE SMITH: Yeah, right. You know, it's a big controversial thing. You know, a lot of people believe you're born that way, and, you know, it is. It's a really tough situation.

SOMMERSTEIN: Fort Drum is a sprawling post of 20,000 soldiers. Its troops have been at the forefront of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like many military communities, the surrounding area is rural and conservative. So homosexuality itself is a subject people wrestle with. They choose their words carefully. They um and ah a lot. Even supporters of "don't ask, don't tell's" repeal say gay soldiers should keep their preferences to themselves.

Like Manju Sampson, a towering sergeant in green camouflage who recently came back from Iraq. He says there are all kinds of matters soldiers keep private.

Sergeant MANJU SAMPSON (101st Airborne Division): Concentrate on doing their job. Don't let their personal life interfere with their work life, then I have no problem with nothing. As long as they get the job done.

SOMMERSTEIN: In fact, of the dozen people I spoke to here, Stacy Shute is one of the few who unequivocally welcomes the end of "don't ask, don't tell".

Ms. STACY SHUTE: You should be who you want to be. If someone is going to stand over there and fight for us, it doesn't matter what you are.

SOMMERSTEIN: Melinda Merrill just shrugs. Her husband is a sergeant at Fort Drum. She says preventing openly gay soldiers from serving is wrong.

Ms. MELINDA MERRILL: I don't think it's fair. I think they should be allowed.

SOMMERSTEIN: But Merrill admits the new policy will take some getting used to.

For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in Watertown, New York.

CORNISH: More than any other branch of the military, the Marine Corps has been resistant to changing the rule restricting openly gay troops. To find out how the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" is playing with the rank and file, NPR's Art Silverman visited Marine Corps Base Quantico.

ART SILVERMAN: Quantico, Virginia, is filled with men and women who've been at the front in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or they're on their way there. At a coffee shop on the main street of town, Marines sip drinks and use free Internet. I asked them about the policy change.

Captain JASON MOORE (U.S. Marine Corps): I think it will be a distraction. I think that it's just an additional variable in the Marine Corps that's already been tested to the limit for the past nine years.

SILVERMAN: Captain Jason Moore says the burden of fighting two wars makes the introduction of openly gay service members a matter of bad timing.

Capt. MOORE: I think if they wanted to change the policy, now is not the right time to do it if at all because I think the military is always going to be a reflection of society, but I think that there's been enough dissent in the Marine Corps that it shows that it's not something that we want to do. And I don't necessarily think it was a big enough problem that needed to be changed right away.

SILVERMAN: Captain Jeremy Sabado agrees. He thinks the repeal of the rule will bring logistical problems.

Captain JEREMY SABADO (U.S. Marine Corps): How do you implement housing, barracks housing? Is there a separate housing for homosexuals and lesbians? Do you have to create new housing? So from a monetary standpoint, as a commander, how do you make those kinds of decisions? When do you appropriate funds for that?

SILVERMAN: At Charlie's Number One Military barbershop, Marine Corporal Andrew Robinson is getting his hair cut. Like everyone I talked to, he claims to have no personal objections to a Marine being openly gay, but he says the new policy won't be easy to implement.

Corporal ANDREW ROBINSON (U.S. Marine Corps): It just depends how they bring it along. If they force it really fast, it's probably not going to work. They need to gradually let this come into play.

SILVERMAN: Then I march into Number Two Military barbershop and find only one customer to ask about the repeal.

How will this affect people in the field doing their job?

Turn off the recorder, he says. He wants to talk frankly. He wants me to know that most Marines come from parts of the country where tolerance toward homosexuality doesn't exist. This means problems ahead. He says, these are country boys, and they even have problems accepting blacks and women in the corps. For him, repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" means hostility and harassment ahead for Marines who let people know they are gay or lesbian.

Art Silverman, NPR News.

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