The number of gays dismissed from the military under the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy has dropped to its lowest level in nine years as U.S. forces continue to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a report issued by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group for gay and lesbian service personnel.
The military discharged 787 gays and lesbians last year, according to SLDN, which attributed the decline to the importance of U.S. operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The figure marks a 17% decrease from 2002 and a 39% drop from 2001.
"You have to ask yourself--and you have to ask the Pentagon--why are the discharges going down?" said C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of SLDN and one of the report's authors. "When they need people, they keep them. When they don't, they implement their policy of discrimination with greater force."
A Pentagon spokeswoman said Tuesday that Defense Department officials could not comment on the report because they had not yet seen it.
The "don't ask, don't tell" policy has been in place since 1994. It allows gays to serve in uniform as long as they don't reveal their sexual orientation. The military has discharged nearly 10,000 people for violations of the policy since it first took effect, according to the report. The number of gays discharged increased steadily from 1994 to 1998. Dismissals decreased slightly in 1999 but then increased again, peaking in 2001 with 1,273 discharges.
The U.S. armed services currently have different troop requirements. The Army, the largest of the services, is so stretched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and missions elsewhere that it is using its "stop-loss" authority to prevent soldiers from retiring or otherwise leaving when their service obligation ends. The Air Force, on the other hand, is trying to reduce its ranks through attrition, and the Navy also is shedding personnel.
All the branches of the military except for the Air Force dismissed fewer gays last year than the year before. The Air Force dismissed 142 people for violating "don't ask, don't tell," up from 121 in 2002. Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Stephens said the service is "unaware of specific factors that would account for the slight increase for this past year."
Military officials have said that allowing openly gay people to serve in the armed forces could interfere with unit cohesion, but Osburn said the latest statistics contradict that. "It just shows that the underlying rationale for 'don't ask, don't tell' is completely irrational," he said. "When do you need unit cohesion more than during war?"
Capt. Austin Rooke, a member of the Army reserves, was called to duty following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He served at Fort Lewis, Wash., and in Qatar, returning home about a year ago. He said that while serving, he didn't talk about the fact that he was gay, but he said some officials probably suspected it since he works as a civilian for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a gay rights group in Washington, D.C. He said in an interview Tuesday that he was not surprised military officials appear to be slower to dismiss gay troops during times of conflict, but he wasn't happy about that.
"It's offensive, I think," Rooke said, adding that he hopes gays will someday be able to serve openly. He noted that it was expensive for the military to lose troops after training them and that the people who are leaving are "people that we desperately need."