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Hearing Sought Over Linguists' Discharge

LOLITA C. BALDOR | May 23, 2007 10:36 PM EST | AP

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WASHINGTON — Lawmakers who say the military has kicked out 58 Arabic language experts because they were gay want the Pentagon to explain how it can afford to let the valuable specialists go.

Seizing on the latest discharge, involving three specialists, House members wrote the House Armed Services Committee chairman on Wednesday that the continued loss of such "capable, highly skilled Arabic linguists continues to compromise our national security during time of war."

Former Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Benjamin said his supervisor tried to keep him on the job and urged him to sign a statement saying he was not gay. Benjamin said his lawyer advised against signing because the statement could be used against him later if other evidence surfaced.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Benjamin said he was caught improperly using the military's secret level computer system to send messages to his roommate, who was serving in Iraq. In those messages, he said, he may have referred to being gay or going on a date.

"I'd always had been out since the day I started working there," Benjamin said. "We had conversations about being gay in the military and what it was like. There were no issues with unit cohesion. I never caused divisiveness or ever experienced slurs," said Benjamin, who was in the Navy for nearly four years.

He was fired under the "don't ask, don't tell" law passed in 1994. It lets gays serve if they keep their sexual orientation private and do not engage in homosexual acts. The law prohibits commanders from asking about a person's sex life and requires discharge of those who openly acknowledge they are gay.

Rep. Marty Meehan, who has sought a repeal, organized the letter to Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., asking the committee hold a hearing about the Arabic linguists.

"At a time when our military is stretched to the limit and our cultural knowledge of the Middle East is dangerously deficient, I just can't believe that kicking out able, competent Arabic linguists is making our country any safer," Meehan said.

The letter, signed by about 40 House members, says that the military has discharged 58 Arabic linguists under the policy and that Congress should decide whether "don't ask, don't tell" "is serving the nation well."

For Benjamin, 23, the discharge ended a military career he had hoped to continue.

He said he was among about 70 people investigated at Fort Gordon in Georgia for using the computer to send personal notes. He said others who are not gay kept their jobs even though they were caught sending sexual and profane messages.

Benjamin said investigators from the Defense Department's inspector general's office pulled the message logs for one day and reviewed them for violations. Some people, he said, received administrative punishments for writing dirty jokes, profanity and explicit sexual references.

According to researchers at the California-based Michael D. Palm Center, which tracks these issues, three Arabic linguists were fired as a result of the computer reviews. Their names were not released. Benjamin agreed to discuss the incident publicly.

The center's director, Aaron Belkin, said, "There is simply no common sense reason for the military to fire Arabic linguists in the midst of a dire shortage of translators. Translating al-Qaida cables is more important the making sure that the military is free of gays."

Marine Maj. Stewart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Pentagon is enforcing the law.

The Defense Department, he said, "must ensure that the standards for enlistment and appointment of members of the armed forces reflect the policies set forth by Congress," he said.

Benjamin said the computer review was done last December, but his discharge was not finalized until the end of March. His roommate, he said, was allowed to finish out his tour in Iraq and came home in February, then was discharged in early April.

"I was always discreet, I never considered it would be an issue," said Benjamin, when asked why he joined the military knowing the policy existed. "I thought if I don't say anything, they're not going to ask me. But, it was more aggressive than I thought."

Meehan's bill to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law has 124 co-sponsors, but efforts to get Congress to take another look at the issue have not yet been successful.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he was not reviewing the policy.