Huffpost Homepage
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

James Heffernan Headshot

Memo to Universities: Let in Those Army Recruiters -- and Then Educate Them

Posted: Updated:

If there was ever a time to fight fire with fire, this is it.

When the Supreme Court unanimously rules that military recruiters must be granted access to university students, is this a disaster? No. It's an opportunity. Now is the time for gay and gay-friendly students all over this country to sign up for a chat with one of those recruiters -- and tell him exactly why the military's policy is dead wrong.

In upholding a law that cuts federal funding for any university that won't give military recruiters a fair crack at its students, the Court has ruled that this law does not violate the free-speech rights of universities -- specifically the right to oppose a policy that keeps anyone who is openly gay from joining our armed forces, or from staying in if he or she admits to being gay. If you take federal money, says the Court to universities, you'll have to take recruiters too. To which any university worth it's salt should now say, "Bring 'em on!"

If recruiters must be allowed to talk to students, students must be free to talk right back. Unless they already know the history of gays in the armed forces, they should first take a crash course on it -- something readily obtainable for free at www.aver.us, the web site of American Veterans for Equal Rights. (Most of the information that follows came from links posted on this site.) Whether or not the students can perforate the mental armor of a single recruiter, they can at least make him know -- face to face -- just how much the military's ban on uncloseted gays is costing all of us.

We're talking real money here. Last month, a University of California Blue Ribbon Commission found that the General Accounting Office had grossly underestimated the cost of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law. In the past ten years, it has cost not $190.5 million, which would be bad enough, but nearly twice that much -- $363.3 million. All that is money spent on men and women who were trained at vast expense and then chucked out -- no matter how well they may have served their country -- merely because they couldn't endure life in the closet. In the past ten years alone, nearly 10,000 military personnel have been discharged for their sexual orientation. They include more than 200 medical specialists and 300 linguists -- many of them trained in Arabic.

When the death toll in Iraq has long since passed 2000 and the wounded number more than 15,000, can we really spare those 200 medics? And when Arabic is the language of the terrorists we're supposed to be fighting as well as of the Iraqis we're supposed to be helping, can we afford to lose even one of those Arabic linguists? Who can measure the true cost of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"?

In the face of such questions, the Pentagon argues that its policy is needed to ensure "unit cohesion." Unpacked, this tidy phrase means that all members of a unit must be straight, or must play it straight, lest an openly gay man goad the others to violence -- as a young airman named Allen Schindler did in Japan some fourteen years ago. Shortly after some of his mates learned that he had confessed to being gay and was about to be kicked off their ship, two of them trailed him to a public restroom, and there one of them beat him so savagely that he looked as if he had died in an airplane crash. Prior to the episode, the murderer had made no secret of his contempt for homosexuals. No one in the armed forces is ever penalized for openly voicing that.

What does this episode teach us? That gay soldiers who get savaged by their mates are getting just what they deserve for stepping out of the closet -- and thus goading their mates to homocidal rage? The same kind of argument was long ago used to justify the killing of civil rights workers in Mississippi and Alabama, where good old boys could hardly be blamed for getting riled by "outside agitators" bent on registering -- who ever heard of such a thing? -- black voters. And why stop there? Why not blame the Jews of Nazi Germany for goading Hitler to exterminate them?

Fortunately, the armed forces stopped well short of that. They sentenced the murderer of Allen Schindler to life imprisonment. But his accomplice got only three months' confinement in return for his testimony, and just two months ago, the army declined even to court martial a gay-bashing private named Zacharias Pierre stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. When Pierre punched Private Kyle Lawson in the face for making comments at an off-base party that he considered "homosexual," he broke Lawson's nose. Though Pierre told police that he never felt physically threatened by Lawson, the army judged Lawson's comments "provoking" enough to make the breaking of his nose more or less excusable. And what were the comments? Lawson said that he asked Pierre about his girlfriend. No one else who saw the assault confirmed Pierre's report of gay innuendoes, and one woman who actually came to Lawson's aid when he hit the floor declined to testify "because," she said. "Pierre and his friends are dangerous."

Wouldn't logic tell the army that men like Pierre pose a far greater threat to unit cohesion than Lawson did? But guess which of these two privates was discharged from the army after this episode -- and which remains on active duty?

Military recruiters are men condemned to a Sisyphean exercise in futility. . Even as the armed forces strain to feed an insatiable war machine whose appetite they can never sate, they are treating some of their best men like garbage. Early last year, the army chucked out a star soldier -- who had also starred as a straight soldier -- named Jeff Howe. In 2003-04, after leaving his Silicon Valley marketing job to join the army in the wake of 9/11, Howe spent a year fighting in Iraq, won five commendations for his service there, and then -- after a brief time in the States -- returned for a second tour of duty in January 2005. But when army investigators learned that he had "come out" in an online profile, they yanked him right out of active duty.

American Veterans for Equal Rights reports that 65,000 gays are now serving in the armed services -- many of them in harm's way. If all of these men and women suddenly stepped out of the closet, would the services just as suddenly dump them all, or would they finally realize just how insane that would be when the services desperately need every able bodied man and woman they have? That's just one of the many questions that gay and gay-friendly students should put to military recruiters. While the students of course may have to conceal their sexual orientation to keep the interview going, they should feel perfectly free to fire away at the military's treatment of gays and to attack every point the recruiter makes in defense of it. When the recruiter reports to his superiors -- as he must -- on his face-off with college students, can he avoid saying anything about their biggest bone of contention, or wondering how much longer he'll have to chew on it?