As the Pentagon begins its year-long study of the impact of ending "don't ask, don't tell," the unaffordable talent loss among gay troops continues to pile up. An Infantry company commander and West Point graduate who deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan and received three bronze stars for his service is right now facing discharge for allegations that he is gay. The officer, who commanded two 170-soldier companies, was called by his superiors "an exemplary commander" whose "desire to lead Soldiers enthusiastically and with uncompromising standards is un-matched by his peers." (He has asked for anonymity since his case is not yet resolved.) Word is also breaking over at Bilerico that a ROTC cadet is facing discharge because she refused to recant a statement about her sexual orientation, and may face a back pay demand of $80,000 for the cost of her tuition.
And when Sen. Joseph Lieberman introduced a bill yesterday to repeal DADT, he was accompanied by an Air Force Major who was discharged after his private emails were searched based on an anonymous tip sent to his commander. Major Michael Almy was deployed to the Middle East four times with a unit that took daily mortar attacks, one of which he watched strike his own comrade. Almy, whose father was a West Point grad who flew helicopters in Vietnam, was named one of the top officers in his field for the entire Air Force. When his emails were found, he was immediately removed from his job where he commanded 180 men and women in Iraq, deprived of his security clearance, and was dragged into a sixteen-month legal battle, despite never making a statement or committing an act that violated the policy. Almy says he was replaced by a junior Captain who was less prepared for the job and far less respected by his troops.
To these latest casualties of DADT, Rep. Joe Wilson's comments yesterday on the House floor will come as a damning, and misguided, slap in the face: The 13,500 discharges under the policy, said Wilson, are "not a significant loss" and most did not have much experience anyway. He said he believes the current policy is working.
So much for the West Point grad's 12 years of Army leadership, or Major Almy's thirteen years of selfless service in the Air Force, and the toll taken on their hundreds of soldiers and Airmen when they were yanked out of their leadership rolls. It wasn't his sexual orientation that disrupted the force, says Almy. "What had a far greater impact on my unit's cohesion was the disruption to the mission after I was fired, and my being replaced by a very junior officer, who was not adequately prepared for the job." Almy said he has no idea what Joe Wilson is talking about. "To say that this policy is working is to completely discredit my four deployments to the Middle East and my thirteen year career as a decorated officer. To say DADT is working is to completely discredit the service of the 13,500 patriotic Americans discharged under this law, the estimated 4,000 who choose each year not to re-enlist because they no longer want to live a lie, and the untold thousands who never choose to enlist because of DADT."
These troops are hardly a drop in the bucket. As Joe Wilson insists this policy has no costs in recruitment and quality, the facts say otherwise. Since the Great Recession, recruitment has been strong, as the unemployed sign up to serve. But while the military has been kicking out gays, it was letting in historic numbers of felons, substance abusers, and high school drop-outs who remain in the force. These troops were granted waivers when recruitment was at a low just before the Recession, when unpopular wars meant pulling teeth to fill slots. In 2005 the army increased by nearly 50 percent the number of new recruits it granted moral waivers. Between 2003 and 2006, 4,230 convicted felons, 43,977 individuals convicted of serious misdemeanors, including assault, and 58,561 illegal drug abusers were allowed to enlist. At the same time, the Pentagon had to forcibly recall thousands of exhausted troops to re-deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan in the very same fields of intelligence, engineering, medicine, administration, transportation, and security that were being drained by the discharge of gay troops. In total, while the Army announced in 2004 it would recall 5,674 troops from the Individual Ready Reserve, 6,273 gay troops had been discharged since 1998.
The military's answer to the "problem" of gay troops is to study the issue for another year. The idea comes from the Commander-in-Chief, but it's a favored tactic of both conservatives and bureaucrats to park disfavored ideas in a study commission, with the intent of delaying until politics and fatigue kill reform altogether. Notice the Republican tactic on healthcare reform: that we need to "start over" and look at it anew, incorporating more Republican ideas (never mind that the GOP track record of total inaction when they did have power tells you their real intention is to do nothing). To that line, President Obama rightly retorts that "We have debated this issue thoroughly, not just for the past year but for decades." Where is this retort when it comes to gays in the military, which the Pentagon itself, as I point out this week in The New Republic, has been studying for half a century?
And yet the approach of the Pentagon's new Working Group is basically a reset. While its leaders insist it is about how, not whether, to lift the ban, everyone knows that any concerns it raises will be used by political opponents to say it can't be done. That tactic has already started, with Rep. Buck McKeon leading the charge.
McKeon is deploying a well-worn strategy of making reform seem far more risky and complex than it really is, by demanding that dozens of questions be answered with metaphysical certainty before any step is taken to end discrimination, even though no such answers were provided for DADT to become law in the first place. "No action to change the law should be taken by the Administration or by this Congress," wrote McKeon in a letter, "until we have a full and complete understanding of the reasons why the current law threatens or undermines readiness in any significant way, whether a change in law will improve readiness in measureable ways, and what the implications for and effects on military readiness, cohesion, morale, good order and discipline are entailed with a change in the law." If our military worked this way in actual warfare, we'd still be speaking with British accents and using slave labor. McKeon is the source of Rep. Joe Wilson's suggestion on the House floor that the policy is working, that there's no need for change, and that any change is too risky.
Yet despite the ridiculous nature of many of McKeon's questions, most of them have, in fact, already been answered. Peruse, for instance, this just-released 5-page memo chronicling twenty studies across fifty years that already assess the impact of gay service on military readiness. As summarized in an article by an Active Duty Air Force Colonel in Joint Force Quarterly, the military journal published for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that unit cohesion will be negatively affected if homosexuals serve openly." McKeon says only the military itself can undertake an assessment based on "credible, substantive, comprehensive and objective data and information." Yet the military has an ignoble history of studying this issue and burying the results. It is not the first source I would trust to review this issue credibly.
What we're doing with the study period is starting over. As President Obama said this week, "For us to start over now could simply lead to delay that could last for another decade or even more." Of course, he was talking about healthcare. "The American people and the U.S. economy just can't wait that long," he said. Nearly two decades ago, we started over with gays in the military, and now here we are, bracing to start over yet again, poised to kick this down the road for many more years to come. The American people, and the U.S. military just can't wait that long.