The repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" hasn't happened as quickly as some gay advocates would like, but a sense of the repeal's inevitability has seeped into the military consciousness. And while many big names in both the military and the government publicly support such a repeal, with the goal of allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the ranks, they won't be the ones living with the change in policy. While it won't (and shouldn't) have an effect on the big picture, the question of how this policy shift will impact those on the ground remains intriguingly relevant.
Having served in the U.S. Army as an armored cavalry officer from 2005-09, including fifteen months in Iraq as a part of the surge, I find the debate about the DADT repeal all smoke and no fire. For those in the combat arms branches of the military -- in which only men are allowed to serve -- the changes in training, mission, and day-to-day life will be negligible. True, the cultures of these combat branches are fueled by hyper-machismo and testosterone, and an undercurrent of homophobia does exist. But the men in this world value one thing above all -- competency. If an openly gay soldier doesn't perform his duties well, yes, he'll get teased for being gay. But not because he is gay, and that's a crucial difference. It's the same barometer of pragmatism that all soldiers apply to everyone, be they skinny, brown, fat, white, whatever. Conversely, if an openly gay soldier is up to snuff, his homosexuality won't be anything more than a personal issue for some, not a professional concern for the whole.
Though I knew of no openly homosexual service members during my time in the Army, I had my opinions about who, soldiers and officers alike, might be. But it never impacted my relationship with them; military life, especially during combat, produces many more immediate concerns. Survival isn't a straight or gay instinct, it's a human one. For example, when we rolled into the middle of a firefight between the Iraqi Army and the Sons of Iraq, I can assure you that who my soldiers bedded in their free time was the furthest thoughts from my mind.
"The most important thing is that I get the job done," one gay junior non-commissioned officer, currently serving in Afghanistan, wrote in an email to me last week. (Note: the NCO wished to remain anonymous, both because DADT hasn't been repealed yet, and because even after a repeal, he believes coming out would adversely affect his career.) "I've confided in my lieutenant and some of my friends. Sure, they were a little freaked out at first, but as I told them, I like attractive gay guys, not ugly straight guys."
There are arguments out there against the DADT repeal, but most of them are red herrings. It's not like homosexuals will suddenly join the military in droves post-repeal, just because they can now be open about their sexuality -- they've been serving already, and will continue to do so, as honorably and as dutifully as their heterosexual brothers (and sisters) in arms. Further, any concern about jumps in sexual assaults is at best, misinformed. Sexual assaults are already a part of the camo life -- according to the Department of Defense, 2,516 sexual assaults were reported in 2009. Only 190 of those were male-on-male or female-on-female, so the gays and lesbians clearly aren't the problem here.
Polling of military personnel suggests steady shifts in attitude on this issue, similar to those in the society it protects. According to a 2009 survey in the newspaper Military Times, 51 percent of active-duty respondents oppose repeal -- compared to 63 percent in 2003. Though Military Times' polling isn't scientific, this shift in numbers is staggering for a generally conservative institution.
Nevertheless, as the polling also reveals, a majority of service members don't yet support a DADT repeal. "Me, I'm against the repeal," Staff Sergeant Chris Mason, one of my platoon's section sergeants in Iraq and a friend, told me. "I think it's going to cause a bunch of problems for leaders and soldiers at the tactical level that those at the top aren't thinking about. That said, the Army will continue to roll along, adapt and overcome, just as it always has."
Mason's probably right: when the repeal goes through, a new set of leadership challenges will result, especially for junior leaders enforcing the transition. But as he notes, the American military has and will continue to adjust to change fluidly and professionally. Once the smoke from the DADT debate clears, I suspect we'll all look back and wonder what the fuss was all about.