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‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Military Policy Faces New Scrutiny

June 29, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Following protests from gay rights activists, efforts to lobby Congress and the administration to repeal the military's policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" have picked up speed. Ray Suarez reports on the movement and its critics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the president met with gay rights activists at the White House today, and he gave the strongest signal yet that he would move to lift the ban on gays openly serving in the military.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: My administration’s already working with the Pentagon and members of the House and the Senate on how we’ll go about ending this policy, which will require an act of Congress.

But as commander-in-chief in a time of war, I do have a responsibility to see that this change is administered in a practical way and a way that takes over the long term. That’s why I’ve asked the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to develop a plan for how to thoroughly implement a repeal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the issue of gays in the military, Ray Suarez has this report.

BARACK OBAMA: Enjoy the White House. Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: Today’s reception at the White House followed a weekend of demonstrations around the country marking the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the gay civil rights movement and celebrating gay pride month.

Among the marchers in Washington were former members of the U.S. military.

PROTESTERS: Hey, hey, ho, ho. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has got to go.

RAY SUAREZ: They want President Obama to keep a promise he made during the presidential campaign.

J.B. COLLIER: I think Barack Obama needs to come forward and support ending the ban on gays and lesbians in the military. It’s bad business.

Pressure mounts

RAY SUAREZ: When they got to the White House, the demonstrators dropped 265 pins into a bucket held by a retired Navy doctor, one pin for each gay servicemember expelled since President Obama's inauguration. For months, gay rights activists have been increasing the pressure on the administration.

One soldier outed himself on national television.

LT. DAN CHOI, U.S. Army: I am gay.

RAY SUAREZ: Lieutenant Dan Choi is an Iraq war vet. He's also fluent in Arabic, one of the few members of the military with that skill. Choi challenged the Obama administration to reverse the ban on open gay service, a policy candidate Obama called a mistake.

BARACK OBAMA: ... the policy has resulted in us spending millions of dollars kicking out people who were, like, Arab linguists. Now, we need people who can speak Arabic. And it shows the foolishness of this policy, which is why I will reverse the policy when I'm president of the United States of America.

RAY SUAREZ: Lieutenant Choi expects to be expelled from the military this week.

Sixteen years ago, a newly elected Bill Clinton came to Washington promising to open military service to gays and ignited a political firestorm in the first weeks of his administration.

GEN. CARL MUNDY, commandant, U.S. Marine Corps: There is not an acceptance of homosexuality among those who serve in the armed forces.

Gay servicemembers forced to leave

RAY SUAREZ: At the time, top military brass and powerful senators were adamantly opposed. Eventually, a compromise was reached when Congress passed a law often called "don't ask, don't tell." Recruits are no longer asked if they're gay when they enlist, and the military's not supposed to actively seek out gay servicemembers.

However, people in uniform still face discharge for engaging in or attempting to engage in homosexual acts or for saying they're gay.

But over the last 15 years, gay servicemen and women continued to be asked and were bound by the rules to tell. Almost 13,000 men and women have been separated from the military under "don't ask, don't tell," including at least 750 with mission-critical jobs, such as translators.

One gay servicemember now facing discharge is Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fehrenbach, a highly experienced and decorated Air Force aviator who flew combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

LT. COL. VICTOR FEHRENBACH, U.S. Air Force: I followed the rules and kept my private life private for more than 18 years.

RAY SUAREZ: But last year, his superiors learned he was gay and started dismissal efforts. Fehrenbach says at first he planned to leave the military quietly but, once he heard Barack Obama during the campaign, decided to hang on.

LT. COL. VICTOR FEHRENBACH: So that gave me a lot of hope that perhaps, if I stayed and I delayed my fight, that perhaps the president would step into office and fulfill his promise, and this would all go away, and I'd be able to continue to serve.

RAY SUAREZ: But Fehrenbach has found changing "don't ask, don't tell" is a low priority for the Obama administration.

ROBERT GATES, secretary of Defense: I think the president and I feel like we've got a lot on our plates right now, and let's push that one down the road a little bit.

Political stalemate

RAY SUAREZ: Aaron Bilken, political science professor and a gay rights advocate, says Washington appears stalemated on this issue. I spoke to him by telephone.

AARON BELKIN, University of California, Santa Barbara: If you ask the military, they're waiting for the politicians. The politicians don't want to move forward without the acquiescence of the military, and so you've got a big political knot.

MAJ. GEN. CHARLES BALDWIN (Ret.), U.S. Air Force: I think that we should keep the law that we have.

RAY SUAREZ: Retired Major General Charles Baldwin was a Vietnam-era rescue helicopter pilot. He retired last year after serving as the Air Force's chief of chaplains.

MAJ. GEN. CHARLES BALDWIN: This is a moral issue. And one of my strong contentions is that to repeal the law would be to show great disrespect for the religious convictions of the great majority of the people in the military, because Christians, Muslims, Jews have as a basic part of their faith that this is an immoral lifestyle.

RAY SUAREZ: In March, Baldwin and more than a thousand retired senior officers sent the president a letter urging him to leave "don't ask, don't tell" in place. "Our past experience as military leaders," they wrote, "leads us to be greatly concerned about the impact of repeal on morale, discipline, unit cohesion, and overall military readiness."

The NewsHour contacted a number of four-star officers requesting an interview for this story. However, none agreed to speak to us on camera. One general expressed surprise his name was even on the list, since he says he had never agreed to sign the letter, and at least three officers listed as signatories are dead.

Advocates of keeping the ban on open gay service cite a recent Military Times poll. It asked active-duty personnel if they supported repealing "don't ask, don't tell": 58 percent said no; only 29 percent said yes; a quarter said they would not or would consider not re-enlisting if the law was repealed.

But Congressman Joe Sestak thinks this poll doesn't tell the whole story. He rose to the rank of vice admiral during his 31 years in the Navy and thinks today's servicemembers don't object to gays in the ranks.

REP. JOE SESTAK, D-Penn.: The youth that come into our military, this is not an issue for them. The average age of an aircraft carrier, the George Washington Aircraft Carrier that was in the battle group I commanded, 5,000 sailors, their average age is 19-and-a-half. This isn't an issue for them.

Congressman crafts legislation

RAY SUAREZ: Sestak has cosponsored the Military Readiness Enhancement Act that repeals the current law. He says Congress is waiting for the president to take up the issue in late summer or fall.

REP. JOE SESTAK: I respect Secretary of Defense Gates' comment about platter being full. There are two wars. There's no doubt in my mind that, as commander-in-chief, that if the president dictates and the Congress mandates, I have watched that Pentagon handle so much with relative ease that handling this, particularly when it has to do what they fight for, the idea of equality, they'll handle overnight.

RAY SUAREZ: Congressman Joe Wilson says "don't ask, don't tell" is working, but he agrees with his House colleague that, if there's going to be a change in the policy, Congress must weigh in from the beginning.

REP. JOE WILSON, R-S.C.: This would be an issue that should be handled as any other issue with hearings and then legislation.

RAY SUAREZ: But if Congress doesn't act, Belkin says President Obama could simply issue an executive order, like President Truman did in 1948 to integrate black soldiers into the military.

AARON BELKIN: We need a two-pronged strategy which would start with an executive order and then, once gays and lesbians are serving openly as a result of the executive order, people will see that this is not a problem for military readiness.

It will be operationally impossible to reverse that executive order. This is toothpaste that you just can't get back into the tube. And legislative repeal will follow the executive orders.

PROTESTORS: Hey, hey, ho, ho, "don't ask, don't tell" has got to go.

RAY SUAREZ: Even as the political battle in Washington heats up, according to many experts, 65,000 gay men and women now serve in silence, but their retired colleagues have promised to keep up the fight in public.

Clarification -- Aug. 20, 2009:

On June 29, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer broadcast a report "Don't Ask, Don't Tell: Military Policy Faces New Scrutiny."

That report noted that at least three of the military officers listed as signatories of a March 31 letter to President Obama and Congress opposing changes in the current law were dead. According to Elaine Donnelly, the President of the Center for Military Readiness and who assembled the list, those officers died subsequent to their signing the letter. The NewsHour stated the facts as it knew them with no suggestion of inappropriate conduct.

The NewsHour report also stated that one general was surprised to see his name on the list because he did not agree to sign it. That officer and the NewsHour stand by this statement.