Gay veterans lobby for change in military policy

Azam Ahmed
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

CHICAGO - Alexander Nicholson speaks five languages, including Arabic, but he will never be allowed to serve in the U.S. Army again.

Outed by a fellow service member who discovered he was gay, Nicholson was honorably discharged just six months after the Sept. 11 attacks under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which only allows lesbians and gay men to serve if they keep quiet about their sexual orientation.

"I think this is a prime example of politics damaging the readiness of the armed forces," said Nicholson, who is currently pursuing a doctorate in political science. "Once I was outed, they were forced to discharge me because of the law, over the objection of my brigade commander,"

At a time when the U.S. military is struggling to retain and recruit soldiers, particularly those with foreign language skills, Nicholas says he would like back into the Army. Only he can't return.

On Thursday, Nicholson met in Chicago with other military veterans and former officials from across the nation who say they have struggled under Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

They came together to be part of an event to salute gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender veterans, a ceremony that organizers said was the only one of its kind sponsored by a major city. The former soldiers who participated included Edward Zasadil, an 82-year-old World War II veteran who carried the American flag at Thursday's ceremony.

But the event also drew attention to what Nicholson and other service members dubbed an outdated and unfair policy.

"This is to show the kind of people the military is losing, either because they are being kicked out or are not re-enlisting because of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy," Nicholson said.

Among those people at Thursday's event were a Korean linguist, and engineer and explosives officer and a public information officer.

About 800 service members dismissed since the law took effect 14 years ago for being gay had been determined "mission critical" by the Pentagon, a 2005 government report found. Studies put the number of gay service members currently serving in the military at about 65,000.

The armed services must enforce the law, Pentagon spokesman Stewart Upton said. "The department of defense must ensure that the standards for enlistment and appointment of members of the armed forces reflect the policies set forth by Congress," Upton said by e-mail.

Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, introduced legislation in 2005 to repeal the law and replace it with a new policy of non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The bill has about 120 sponsors.

Meanwhile, the military continues to suffer under Don't Ask, Don't Tell, critics say.

"The shortage of Arabic speakers is dire, and one important context of this policy is what it means for the military when we fire badly needed doctors and linguists because of sexual orientation," said Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara, a think tank that studies sexual minorities and social policy. "This policy is not about military effect. It's about animus, bigotry and intolerance."

A total of 58 Arabic-language specialists have been removed for their sexual orientation, Belkin said. The Pentagon estimates the number to be much lower.

Rear Admiral Alan Steinman, a physician who is the highest-ranking former military official to come out as openly gay, said that he viewed the policy as a threat to national security because of the number of qualified people who are either removed or opt not to serve because of the policy.

"Our nation needs to appreciate that our gay men and women in the military are as valuable as anyone else serving," Steinman said.

Nearly 11,000 service members have been dismissed since the law came into affect in 1993, according to the Department of Defense, but critics say those numbers don't include people who simply decide not to re-enlist because of the policy.

That figure is close to 2,500 people a year, according to Gary Gates, senior research fellow at the University of California Los Angeles' Williams Institute.

Antonio Agnone said he left the Marines because he felt insecure about where the policy would leave him and his partner if he were to be injured while disarming bombs in Iraq. Because he could never inform anyone of his relationship with his partner, "the military would never let (my partner) know what happened to me," he said.

After joining the marines in 2002, Angnone was deployed to Iraq in 2005 where part of his responsibility was to locate and diffuse Improvised Explosive Devices, makeshift bombs planted along roadsides and other public places.

"I didn't want to get out of the service. But I didn't realize the full impact of Don't Ask Don't Tell until I was deployed overseas," said Agnone, 27.

Julianne Sohn, 30, now works for the Los Angeles Police Department, where she says her sexual orientation is embraced.

"But if the military were to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, I'd rejoin tomorrow," said Sohn, a former public affairs officer. "I left because I was so stressed out from having to hide."

Sohn said that many of the people she worked with understood her predicament, even if it was never spoken about outright.

A December 2006 Zogby poll of service members who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan found that three-quarters felt comfortable around gays and lesbians.

Jarrod Chlapowski, a former army serviceman, said that he met a number of gay men and women when he served as a Korean linguist in the military. He eventually even told his fellow soldiers about his sexual orientation.

"No one freaked out over my being gay," he said. "I was never punched in the face or called any derogatory comments."

But later in his service, he began to hide again as he was switched to work in different areas after witnessing a number of discharges of gays and lesbians. In 2005, he decided to end his career in the Army as a result.

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