Missing the target

According to the latest Army recruiting statistics, we need more soldiers, period. So why continue to fire and turn away gay men and lesbians who want to serve?

BY Sharon Alexander

April 17 2005 11:00 PM ET

The Army, it seems, is missing the target on recruiting and retaining critical personnel to fight the war on terror.Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey recently told reporters that he is “very concerned” about data showing the Army will again miss its recruiting target for both March and April.In February the Army missed its monthly recruiting target for the first time in five years, and it missed it by 27%.Certainly, a falling rate of unemployment combined with the less than ideal working conditions of a combat zone can be blamed in part for the falloff in recruits eager to deploy to war.But difficult recruiting conditions do not explain all the critical personnel shortages the Army faces today. The Pentagon’s policy of turning away Americans who want to enlist (and discharging those already serving) simply because they happen to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender can also be blamed for some critical personnel shortages across all of the services.Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Gail McGinn recently acknowledged that a shortage of language specialists—particularly Arabic speakers—is a serious concern. In January then-Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge told Congress “we need more Arabic-speaking analysts.”Nonetheless, according to a February 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office, the Armed Forces have fired 322 language experts, including 54 who speak Arabic, under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on lesbian and gay service personnel.The same report found that a total of 10,000 personnel have been discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell” since fiscal year 1994, among those roughly 800 personnel with skill sets for which the Army currently suffers critical shortages—intelligence analysts, cryptologic linguists and technicians, and interrogators, to name a few.According to the latest Army recruiting statistics, we need more soldiers, period.So why continue to fire and turn away those who want to serve?According to a 2004 Urban Institute report, at least 65,000 lesbian and gay Americans are currently serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.According another 2003 Urban Institute study, over one million gay veterans have served our country with honor.Countless others want to sign up for military service, but are discouraged from doing so by the prospect of having to live under the discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” regime.Others who have been discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell” are actively fighting to return to service.In December, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network filed suit on behalf of 12 veterans of the war on terrorism, all fired for being gay, who are fighting to continue their military careers.On the same day, a different group of service members sued Pentagon leaders to leave military service, arguing that the stop-loss policies delaying their discharge from military service in favor of continued service in Iraq violate the principle of an all-volunteer Army.The Pentagon, of course, immediately fought back against both suits. It simultaneously rejects those who are eager to serve (and happen also to be gay) and retains those who have have served their enlistments and would prefer to return to civilian life.That kind of illogic is precisely why the Army finds itself short on recruits.Rather than appealing to Congress for repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” to help fill critical shortages, the Army will embark on a new campaign to improve recruitment of straight Americans. As Secretary Harvey states, the Army will begin appealing to “patriotism to sway wavering parents and drum up recruits,” according to press reports. This “national call to service” will, supposedly, change the minds of young persons who have determined military service is not for them. It will compel, supposedly, mothers and fathers to encourage their sons and daughters to deploy to a war zone where the number of casualties remains heartbreakingly steady.It will, supposedly, make the low pay of a military career inconsequential to young Americans making career decisions.It will, of course, exclude lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans. Secretary Harvey says he knows “of no move . . . no move at all” to lift the military’s ban on patriots who happen to be gay or lesbian.That’s a shame, because our armed forces could certainly benefit from the talents of gay Americans, thousands of whom have proven themselves to be effective soldiers and leaders over the years. For example, former Sergeant Sonya Contreras and former Sergeant First Class Stacy Vasquez were both cited as top-notch recruiters in the Army prior to being discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell.”These talented recruiters could be making a real difference in remedying the Army’s personnel shortages, had they not been discharged because of their sexual orientation.Fortunately, Congress is beginning to understand the flaws in discouraging talented, patriotic Americans from serving. In March a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in the House rallied behind the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, a bill that will repeal the gay ban and make sexual orientation a nonissue, as it always should have been. The bill, which now has more than 65 cosponsors, should be quickly approved in the House, and senators should quickly introduce and pass similar legislation.Secretary Harvey, and other Pentagon leaders, should rally behind the plan too.The Pentagon cannot continue to exclude those who want to serve and are qualified to do so. There are more important targets to set our sights on.

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