SLDN Reports: Conduct Unbecoming: The 10th Annual Report on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

WASHINGTON, DC – As the United States military continues to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan, discharges of lesbian and gay military personnel plummeted 17% in FY2003, according to a new report from Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN).

Conduct Unbecoming, an annual review of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law, finds that gay-related discharges fell to 787 last year, down from 906 in 2002. The 2003 figures mark a 39% decrease in discharges since 2001, the year before current conflicts in the Middle East began. The number also represents the fewest gay discharges since 1995.

“Gay discharge numbers have dropped every time America has entered a war,” the report says, “from Korea to Vietnam to the Persian Gulf to present conflicts.” It goes on to note that “more of our allies have dropped their bans, and our American troops are fighting alongside openly lesbian, gay and bisexual allied personnel in the war on terrorism.”

The experiences of those allied nations, the report finds, are one part of a growing movement recognizing the detrimental impact of the military’s gay ban. “In the decade since ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ became law,” the report says, “overwhelming evidence has shown the military’s gay ban to be counterproductive to our national interests and contrary to our nation’s ideals.” It goes on to say that “this irrational policy of exclusion has cost our nation, and our security, almost 10,000 dedicated and trained Americans over the past ten years. That’s more than two full brigades. It is also one-third of the 30,000 new recruits that the Army now says it needs to fight the war on terrorism.”

The cost of training those discharged under the ban, the report finds, is between one quarter billion and 1.2 billion dollars. “The cost of shrinking the pool of talent for our nation’s armed forces,” the report says, “is immeasurable.”

SLDN also reports on the experiences of lesbian and gay military personnel serving in times of war. Their service, the report says, “is a powerful reminder that bravery and patriotism know no sexual orientation.”

Captain Austin Rooke, an Army reservist called to active duty in Qatar in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, told SLDN that it was not easy serving as a gay man in a war zone. “I had only one friend I could really be open to and confide in,” Rooke said. “I did not know anyone else who was gay. And the environment was such that one did not feel comfortable coming out.”

Rooke’s experiences are echoed in the report by retired Master Chief Petty Office of the Coast Guard Vincent W. Patton III.

Patton, who served in the Coast Guard’s highest ranking enlisted position from 1999-2002, recently returned from a visit with American troops stationed in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf region. General John Abizaid, Commander of U.S. Central Command and the USO, invited Patton, an SLDN honorary board member, to tour Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan with the USO. His mission, which was part of the USO's "Operation Handshake" program, was to gauge the morale of our troops involved in military operations in the Middle East.

Patton says that he spoke to an estimated 700-800 troops, mostly soldiers, during his tour. Attitudes regarding lesbian, gay and bisexual colleagues, he says, split largely among generational lines. Young enlisted troops were not concerned about the sexual orientation of their military colleagues.

Ten years into the military’s ban, Conduct Unbecoming finds a growing consensus from both the military and civilian communities that lesbian and gay Americans should be allowed to serve openly.

The report cites a recent Gallup poll which found 79% support for allowing gays to serve openly, up from just 57% at the onset of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Within the military community, the public declaration of three senior retired military officers that they are gay generated widespread discussion about the ban. RADM Alan M. Steinman, USPHS/USCG (Ret.), BG Keith H. Kerr, CSMR (Ret.) and BG Virgil Richard, USA (Ret.) were joined last year by other senior retired military leaders in calling for an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” including former Reagan Administration Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence J. Korb and former Judge Advocate General of the Navy, Rear Admiral John Hutson, USN (Ret.).

“The evidence against this law is irrefutable and its repeal is inevitable,” said SLDN Executive Director C. Dixon Osburn. “Our nation has wasted too much talent and too much money on an exclusionary law that undermines our national security interests. As terrorists plot against us, we cannot afford to fire more linguists. As the commitments of our military grow, we cannot afford to turn away qualified patriots. The American people are calling on our leaders to topple this discriminatory law. Prejudice plays into the hands of our enemies.”

The report also faults each of the services for taking little action to prevent or curb anti-gay harassment. “The Bush Administration and its Pentagon leaders continue to ignore a growing epidemic of anti-gay harassment within the armed forces,” the report finds. “Despite the adoption of a comprehensive Anti-Harassment Action Plan . . . Defense Department leaders refuse to implement the plan and continue to turn a blind eye to dangerous harassment within the ranks.” The report goes on to say that “the plan continues to collect dust on Pentagon shelves.”

In the end, however, the report finds that “there is . . . no fair way to implement ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ or any policy of discrimination. The truth is evident and overwhelming: there is no evidence to support the gay ban.”

“Repealing this law is in the best interest of our military, our service members and all Americans,” said Osburn. “The momentum to do just that is building.”

Click here to view the report in PDF format.