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Gays in the Military

January 6, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


TOM BEARDEN: The Pentagon’s policy on gay service is commonly called “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and has been in effect since 1993. It was the result of a hard-fought compromise between President Clinton, who had advocated allowing homosexuals to serve openly, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Congress, who opposed it. Congress passed a law rendering such service illegal.

The “don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t pursue” policy says: “The Department of Defense will not ask, nor will members be required to reveal their sexual preference. Homosexual orientation is a personal and private matter and will not be questioned during service. However, homosexual conduct is not compatible with military service and will subject a member to discharge from the armed forces.”

Provoking the latest round of political debate was the killing of Army Private Barry Winchell at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, last year, and the murder conviction and sentencing of 18-year old Private Calvin Glover last month. Soon after, in New York, Senate candidate and First Lady Hillary Clinton, speaking at a gay rights fund-raiser, said the policy had not worked. A week later, her husband agreed. In a radio interview, Mr. Clinton said the policy was out of whack and, as implemented, does not work. The issue was again raised at last night’s presidential campaign forum in New Hampshire.

PANELIST: If you become President will you nominate members of the Joint Chiefs who only support your gay policy? In other words, will it be a litmus test?

AL GORE: I would try to bring about the kind of change in policy on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that President Harry Truman brought about after World War II in integrating the military. And I think that would require those who wanted to serve on the position of… on the Joint Chiefs, to be in agreement with that policy, so yes.

BILL BRADLEY: My sense is that when you’re President of the United States, military people are loyal to their commander-in-chief, whatever the policy is that the commander-in-chief calls for for the country, and that’s what I expect them to do if I’m President of the United States and we move toward gays in the military, which I intend to do.

TOM BEARDEN: The President weighed in again today, standing in front of the Clintons’ new home in New York.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: I think a lot of people have actually forgotten that Congress put into the law the present policy. And so what I’m going to do is spend the next year trying to make sure that we do what was intended and what I announced would be done after extensive consultation with our commanders back in 1993. I believe that the next president, if he wants to change the policy, will have to get the Congress to change the law.

TOM BEARDEN: Among Republicans, George W. Bush, John McCain and Steve Forbes back the current policy. Their more conservative opponents, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes, have urged a return to the pre-1993 policy barring gays from serving. Last month, after the Clintons first spoke, Defense Secretary William Cohen announced a three-month review of the policy, especially into allegations that gays were being singled out for investigation and harassment. But former Marine Commandant General Carl Mundy and other retired officers have urged caution, warning that politically inspired changes could provoke a backlash in the all-volunteer military. A recent study of professional officers indicated as many as 27 percent would leave the service if gays were allowed to serve openly.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes it from there.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, four views on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and whether the policy needs to be changed. Michelle Benecke is co-executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. She served in the Army as a Captain. Robert Maginnis is senior director of national security and foreign affairs at the Family Research Council. He is a retired Army lieutenant colonel and was part of the Pentagon’s study group that came up with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Lieutenant General Paul Cerjan is president of Regent University. He retired after 34 years in the Army, where his last post was as president of the National Defense University. And Major General Vance Coleman retired from the Army reserves in 1989; he served as an artillery officer in the Korean War, and he’s now director of a community education foundation. Welcome all.

Michelle Benecke, President Clinton, the man who helped certainly spearheaded this policy to start with, now says it doesn’t work. Is he right?

MICHELLE BENECKE, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network: This policy doesn’t work. He is right. Military leaders continue to ask people about their orientation, to pursue suspected gay members, and to tolerate anti-gay harassment. In the last six years, my organization, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, has assisted 2,000 military members who are hurt by this law. Harassment increased 120% alone last year in our cases. Discharges have increased 86% under this law.

MARGARET WARNER: This is just for being homosexual.

MICHELLE BENECKE: Right. And the reason discharges have increased is because people facing harassment in the military have no recourse but to leave. And finally, service members are being required to lie, even to their parents, their doctors and their best friends, as a condition of serving our military. No, this policy doesn’t work.

MARGARET WARNER: General Cerjan, do you think the policy works?

LT. GEN. PAUL CERJAN (Ret.), U.S. Army: I think it absolutely works. It’s got a few things around the edges that have to be cleaned up to enforce the policy. But let’s remember, this is a law. It’s not a policy. It was enacted by a Democratic Congress in 1993, and if anybody believes that commanders on the ground spend all their time trying to ferret out people who may be of homosexual orientation, they don’t understand what it is to serve in the military today.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, when you say you think it works, what’s your evidence? What do you mean it works?

LT. GEN. PAUL CERJAN (Ret.): Well, if you take a look at the comment that Michelle just made about people leaving the service, 86% last year left the service voluntarily by identifying themselves as homosexual. Now, we don’t know whether or not they left because they wanted to get out of the service or if they were in fact homosexuals. So, I think there’s a little bit of questioning about these statistics.

MICHELLE BENECKE: I want to address that, Margaret, because we do know why they left. Our organization is the only entity that documents what is occurring under this law. And the fact is that our military leaders support those people who harass their fellow soldiers rather than supporting well-meaning officers and NCO’s in the field who would rather treat their people fairly. That must end.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Colonel Maginnis….

LT. GEN. PAUL CERJAN (Ret.): I think that is a totally incorrect allegation.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get – all right – there are two guests that haven’t spoken yet. Colonel Maginnis, Bob Maginnis, do you think it’s working?

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.), The Family Research Council: I’ve consistently said “don’t ask, don’t tell” since July of 1993 when President Clinton announced that this was the policy, having been inside I said it’s not going to work, one day we’ll be here declaring that. It causes homosexuals to pretend they aren’t homosexuals. It causes the military to pretend it doesn’t care about homosexuals serving and it gives the Congressmen a free ride. They don’t have to deal with this tough issue. It’s time that we return to the question. It’s time that we make “don’t ask, don’t tell” consistent with what the law says that General Cerjan just pointed out.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask General Coleman, do you think it works?

MAJ. GEN. VANCE COLEMAN (Ret.), U.S. Army Reserve: No. It absolutely does not work. I disagree with General Cerjan. You know, it’s obvious it isn’t working. What just happened at Fort Campbell…. the leadership –

MARGARET WARNER: Excuse me. You’re talking about the beating death of a….

MAJ. GEN. VANCE COLEMAN (Ret.): Absolutely. But the leadership was supporting the policy we wouldn’t have things like that occurring. We wouldn’t have this many people leaving the service as leave now. My guess is that they’re leaving out of fear. When you cannot be yourself and you don’t know if you’re going to be physically damaged or killed, for that matter, because the commanders do not support the policy, it seems to me the thing to do is to run for safety and that is to leave the service. And that’s sad when my country comes to that point.

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): Margaret we need to be careful about painting the entire military on the terrible problem in one unit. That was a heinous crime committed down there and Glover is going to hopefully spend the rest of his life in jail for that murder. But at the same time we need to recognize nobody denies that homosexuals have served for the last 221 years in the military. It’s: under what conditions may they serve? It’s been declared because they are cohort that brings in some problems, the military says they’re not going to contribute to cohesion and quality force that it demands, Congress agreed, they passed a very compelling law and therefore, just like we discriminate against a whole host of other people, we say that they should not serve openly.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. Three out of the four of you don’t think it works. Is there something to make the current policy more workable? Michelle Benecke.

MICHELLE BENECKE: This law is a double standard and it’s wrong. And ultimately Congress needs to replace it with a rule whereby everybody is simply treated the same, but in the meantime the least that the military leaders can do for the safety of our soldiers is to fulfill their promises to stop asking, to stop pursuits and to stop harassment. And to date they have not done so.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. General Cerjan, do you think it needs to be enforced in that way in a better way?

LT. GEN. PAUL CERJAN (Ret.): I think that it’s a leadership issue and you will find that commanders, generally speaking, will protect any soldier in the force who is harassed. Now, if you think you’re going to continually try to ferret out those who have a homosexual orientation, I think that’s exactly wrong. You cannot make a blanket statement that all commanders in the military, the complete cohort of officers and noncommissioned officers spend all their time trying to ferret out homosexuals; that’s an incorrect statement.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me just get Bob Maginnis and then I’ll come to you, General. What do you think, Bob Maginnis, is the way to make this policy work? You’ve alluded to it, but explain it a little more.

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): Well, you know, Mr. Cohen is trying to do an inspection. They’ve already declared the policy works back in August. And, now they’re adding don’t harass. I’m afraid– and I agree, we don’t want to harass anyone. Nobody should be harassed. However that’s going to chill the whole process. I think we’re going to make commanders out there far more timid about initiating investigations. Therefore we have a protected class in the military. And that’s not what the law says.

MARGARET WARNER: But what needs to be done?

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): What we need to do is return to the law. Congress has yet to have a single hearing on this issue since 1993. They need to hold the military accountable for what the law says and they need to reimpose the question which they can do based on that law.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean when you’re recruited ask if they’re gay. If they say they’re gay, they’re not recruited.

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): We’re hypocritical. We’re saying anybody can come in that we haven’t already asked a question on, please come in and you can serve. That includes homosexuals. We ought to stop being hypocritical about this.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. But, just so I understand, because I want to go to General Coleman, you’re saying essentially gays should be allowed to serve in the military but only if they’re in the closet.

LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): That’s right. That’s the condition under which even George Washington adhered to and for the last 220 years.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. General Coleman, take it away. You think this can be fixed?

MAJ. GEN. VANCE COLEMAN (Ret.): No, I don’t think. I think the law, as the General said, should not be there, period. We should go back to what the Army was as an individual, whether black, white, blonde, blue eyed, gray haired, whatever, if I want to serve, I should be able to serve. And providing that service, I’ll have to be able to be what I am. I should not have to pretend that I’m something that I’m not. It seems to me that the Army is to fight and to win. I remember that from day one — to fight and to win — nothing about sexual orientation. So, we can train people to fight and win, no matter what their sexual preference might be, it seems to me that’s the bottom line.

MARGARET WARNER: So you agree with both Democratic candidates who would like to see homosexuals able to serve openly?

MAJ. GEN. VANCE COLEMAN (Ret.): Absolutely.


MAJ. GEN. VANCE COLEMAN (Ret.): I served openly. I don’t know why they shouldn’t be able to.

MARGARET WARNER: You mean you as a black man?

MAJ. GEN. VANCE COLEMAN (Ret.): That’s right.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. General Cerjan, what about that?

LT. GEN. PAUL CERJAN (Ret.): First of all I think race is not a choice. Homosexuality is. Having said that, let me talk about the comments made in that last night on the debates. It seems to me that there’s a problem here since we’re not talking policy, we’re talking laws. So the law has to be changed in order for any President to appoint an individual who supports an openly homosexual policy. I think that’s something for the lawyers to attend to in terms of whether or not it’s legal to get a chairman of the Joint Chiefs or a person to serve who is in direct contradiction to the law. Basically, let me make one more comment.


LT. GEN. PAUL CERJAN (Ret.): It really bothers me that we would spend 30-some odd years educating and training the leadership of this country to move into positions of vast responsibility as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and chiefs of services to give that military advice to the President when we’re about to put our sons and daughters in harm’s way and we would eliminate the best and brightest because of a policy that says unless you support an openly gay policy in the military that only addressed 1.5 to 2% of the population does not play to what we’re about and that’s to win the nation’s wars.

MAJ. GEN. VANCE COLEMAN (Ret.): One more comment if I may.


MAJ. GEN. VANCE COLEMAN (Ret.): You know, it could be, General, that maybe the best and the brightest to lead this country to victory just might be gay.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Michelle Benecke, make the case for letting gays serve openly.

MICHELLE BENECKE: Gays do serve openly in some units and gays have served openly in the past. Colonel Kim Meyer is one example; Marine Sergeant Justin Elzin. Through experience we have learned that when people know other gay people, they lose their stereotypes. And by the way, prejudice shouldn’t be a reason to exclude people in the first place. The real issue is who do we want in the military? Do we want Barry Winchells, someone who all of the testimony shows was a dedicated soldier; his unit members took the stand and testified they would go to combat with him without hesitation. That example, of any, should show that what breaks down unit morale is prejudice and hatred. We shouldn’t want to recruit people like the man who killed PFC Barry Winchell. We should want to recruit fair-minded Americans.


LT. COL. ROBERT MAGINNIS (Ret.): We should not make decisions based on hatred or discrimination, but we should make decisions on what is the best interest of the military and the armed forces of this country. You know, right now we recruit people with an eye on building cohesive teams. The cohesion is the glue that holds the units together. It overcomes terror and fear on the battlefield. Very few Americans understand that firsthand. And the reality is if that if you can’t overcome that by camaraderie and cohesiveness, the trust and confidence that is built over a lot of time and a lot of activity, then you’re going to have an ineffective unit. The thing that we have discovered destroys that the most comes down to, you know, favoritism, sexual relationships, favoring one over another. We already have problems where we mix young men and young women, and when we put young homosexuals together, you won’t be able to distinguish one from the other. And then you end up with sort of a problem the Australians and the Brits are about to have and they try to prosecute all indications of sexual relationships like holding hands between a boy and girl. You know, we have to focus once again on the importance of military readiness. What is our military all about? It’s about preserving peace and fighting wars when it’s required.

MICHELLE BENECKE: And Margaret, I would say “don’t ask, don’t tell” don’t pursue hurts military readiness. It hurts military readiness, because it’s harassment and investigations that break down unit morale.

MARGARET WARNER: General Cerjan, what’s your view on the military cohesion argument and whether letting homosexuals serve openly will affect that?

LT. GEN. PAUL CERJAN (Ret.): Well, I think that across the board, as Colonel Maginnis said, you have a cohesion issue in terms of whether or not soldiers, sailors, airmen, believe in their leaders and whether or not they’re willing to go forward when the test comes to walk into the crucible. So I think the homosexuality issue affects that because, as we found out in so many instances that Michelle brought up, there is harassment out there and that needs to be stopped. We need to apply an evenhanded policy as the policy was written. But the thing that bothers me is that when we start taking look at the readiness of the service and as General Coleman said to fight and defend and win the nation’s wars, that means that we have to take every measure we can to insure that we have a combat-ready force.

MARGARET WARNER: But what are you saying exactly?

LT. GEN. PAUL CERJAN (Ret.): Well, we’re becoming a social engineering agency and that’s not what the military was intended to do.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m sorry, but we’re almost out of time. I want to make sure I understand your point, General. Are you saying because there are straight members of the military who don’t like homosexuals or find them distasteful or anathema, or whatever that affects unit cohesion or not?

LT. GEN. PAUL CERJAN (Ret.): I think it does. I absolutely believe it does because you have to believe in your leaders and, you know, this whole idea that you die for your country has been proven to be incorrect. You die for the soldier that sits next to you in the foxhole. And you have to believe in, and there’s a whole bunch of love-trust and understanding about what you’re doing in terms of what you’re doing in the unit. And so, consequently, I think it affects unit cohesion.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. General Coleman, address that point.

MAJ. GEN. VANCE COLEMAN (Ret.): I suspect that any differences between individuals could affect unit cohesiveness. Let’s not just look at homosexuality. That happens and I saw that when I was a younger officer, it happens with people that just don’t like each other. It happens for various reasons, not because of homosexuality. So you can’t just use that to say that affects… you can’t have it because it affects unit cohesion. If that were true, then I think a lot of other things that must be eliminated. I didn’t like you again because you had red hair, I didn’t know you because you were six feet tall or I didn’t like you because you were heavy. I didn’t like you because you were different than I am. That was the thing that the integration between blacks and whites back in the 1950s with President Truman. People had the same arguments then. We overcame that because we learned to trust and to respect each other. And I would say to you that prior to the leadership of the Army making homosexuality an issue, it was not an issue. Homosexuals fought side by side with straights. And there was no problem. It became a problem when the leadership made it a problem. General, I agree with you. It’s a leadership problem, not a soldier problem.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, gentlemen and Michelle Benecke, we’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you all four very much.