View From the Hill
The tale of two very different soldiers came into relief for me this week as tragic details trickled in about the case of Army sergeant John Russell fatally shooting five of his fellow service members on a military base in Baghdad. Russell, reportedly on his third tour of duty, overstressed and worried about being discharged, opened fire on five unsuspecting soldiers at a clinic intended to help those suffering from mental fatigue.
Back in Washington, Joint Chiefs chair Mike Mullen and Defense secretary Robert Gates were testifying before the House Armed Services Committee and emphasizing the importance of caring for our troops.
Admiral Mullen noted a distressingly high number of suicides in his opening statement. "The army in particular has been hit hard by a troubling increase over the past four years and an already disturbing number of suicides in 2009," he said. "We do not know why this is occurring, though the increased stress of wartime is certainly a factor."
In the first few minutes of his testimony, Gates observed, "If we don't get the people part of this business right, none of our other decisions will matter." Gates also mentioned the number of troops who are in stop-loss -- meaning their tour of duty has been involuntarily extended based on the needs of the military -- a number he put at 13,000 soldiers.
Among the room full of observers who looked on was a second soldier, Lt. Dan Choi, a West Point grad and Arabic linguist who is being discharged under the military's ban on gays serving openly. He is one of 12,000-plus soldiers who have been forced out of service for being gay -- one of 12,000-plus soldiers who could be relieving an overstretched force and helping to prevent more suicides and homicides. That does not even take into account the more than 40,000 additional gays and lesbians who statisticians believe would join the armed forces if the ban were lifted.
During a break in the hearing, Choi reinforced Gates's and Mullen's emphasis on military personnel, explaining to me how important human beings and relationships are to the type of warfare we're engaged with in the Iraq and Af-Pak theatres.
"In a counterinsurgency you do focus on the human beings -- the human terrain is key terrain," he said. "You usually talk about key terrain in terms of geography or something tangible like that. But no, the fighting force is made up of humans, it's made up of people, and every human being and all their capabilities -- it all counts."
It was my first opportunity to meet Lieutenant Choi, who was even more impressive in person than in his already impressive media appearances. He told me that his extended media tour, with segments on CNN and MSNBC among many others, has not been easy, but that it's all been made worthwhile by the e-mails he receives from deployed soldiers who say his very existence and his battle to end the gay ban has given them hope to carry on.
"There are two people that e-mailed me from Iraq -- they're deployed right now -- and they were saying that they didn't know if they wanted to live anymore until they found out that West Point graduates are coming out," he said. "Any chance that I get, I want to tell everybody that those soldiers are honorable people. They don't hear that enough, and in fact they get the wrong message, especially with all the discharges."â€¨
Choi is a soldier's soldier, in the same sense that I think of Gen. Colin Powell being a soldier's soldier. In perfect keeping with the famous West Point mantra, "Duty, Honor, Country," the only thing separating Choi's loyalty to duty and country is his loyalty to honor. He clearly did not believe lying about his identity was honorable.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, for his part, this week was being pressed by the press on the president's failure to end the discharges. He parried that changing the policy would "require more than the snapping of one's fingers."
"To get fundamental reform in this instance â€¨requires a legislative vehicle. The president made a promise to change this policy; he will work with the Joints Chiefs of Staff, â€¨the administration, and with Congress to ensure that we have a policy â€¨that works for our national interests," Gibbs said Tuesday.
Reporters peppered Gibbs with questions again on Friday. Was this just one more campaign promise he was backing away from? Doesn't firing specialized soldiers like Arabic linguists put our troops in danger? Couldn't the president put a moratorium on the discharges while the legislation was being hashed out?
Gibbs said the president had determined that halting the discharges via executive order was not a "lasting or durable solution" and focused again on changing the policy through legislation.
Since the White House seems fixated on congressional action, allow me to point out that while a bill has been introduced in the House, no bill has been "dropped" in the Senate, as they say on the Hill. In fact, I have been sniffing around here for weeks and have yet to find a single sign that the "legislative vehicle" Gibbs speaks of is being pushed forward. I have asked the White House press office for any sign of advancement. Nothing.
And with the exception of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, LGBT groups appear to have ceded the issue almost entirely to the White House. Even when someone like national security adviser Gen. James Jones goes on TV, shrugs his shoulders, and says "I don't know" if the military policy will be overturned, all we hear is radio silence from everyone but SLDN.
That silence might be music to my ears if it were accompanied by any movement -- any sign that all this LGBT White House access was working some magic -- but it's not.
The truth is, President Obama is calling the legislative shots on the Hill right now. And if he wanted lawmakers to introduce a repeal bill in the Senate so that lobbyists could start building support, he could do it with, say, the snap of his fingers. But apparently all that silence isn't getting him into the groove either.