I don’t have permission to be on base, and I’m nervous, because when I told veterans what I planned to do, they all gave me pretty much the same warning: Any soldier I approach could call the Military Police, who would escort me to the gates and kick me out -- unless they detained me for questioning.

At lunchtime on a gray September Sunday, a retired officer drove me onto the Fort Lewis Army base in Washington, about 50 miles south of Seattle, and dropped me at the PX (military lingo for “post exchange”), which is basically a food court wrapped in a mini-mall that includes a GNC store, a barber shop, a video arcade, and a folding table where a friendly old guy sells wooden American flags he carves out of what he claims are 1,000-year-old logs. (A sign on the wall behind him reads, ask me how i know the logs are one thousand years old!) Until the cops come, I am haunting the food court, walking up to straight soldiers and asking whether they’ve ever been aware of serving alongside a gay soldier and, if so, what it was like.

I’m conducting this extremely unscientific survey in hopes that the straight guys will tell some stories that might shed light on the debate about repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the federal law and Pentagon policy on gays in the military, which will be the subject of a Senate hearing this fall. DADT is based on the proposition that straight soldiers cannot work with openly gay soldiers. Supporters of the ban argue that gays, if allowed to serve openly, would harm unit cohesion, troop readiness, and morale, largely because their presence would make straight soldiers self-conscious showering or dressing in front of them.

Yet some gay and lesbian soldiers are already serving openly in the U.S. armed forces. Although last year 619 soldiers were thrown out of the military for being gay, the policy is selectively enforced. According to a 2006 poll by Zogby International, 45% of service members suspect that at least one person in their unit is gay or lesbian, and 23% are sure of it. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans in battalions of combined international forces have fought under command of openly gay officers from Canada or the United Kingdom or alongside gay soldiers from 11 other countries (among the 25 worldwide) that allow known gays to serve: Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Sweden. Openly gay, armed military contractors serve alongside U.S. soldiers in combat theaters as well.

Such experiences have helped to move some veterans, including U.S. representative Patrick Murphy, a straight Irish Catholic Blue Dog Democrat from Pennsylvania, to work for DADT’s repeal. Murphy taught constitutional law at West Point, volunteered for overseas deployment after 9/11, served in Bosnia, went to Baghdad as a paratrooper and Judge Advocate General’s Corps attorney with the 82nd Airborne Division, and was awarded the Bronze Star. Along the way, he says, “I saw great officers, great leaders, who had to resign their commission because they wanted to live by Army values, and they feel that it’s inconsistent with those values to live a lie.” And he was deeply troubled when he saw talented soldiers being replaced by mediocre ones because of DADT: “My battle buddy in one of the toughest courses in the Army got kicked out because he happened to be gay. And the guy who took his place couldn’t carry his lunch.”

Tags: World