Ex-Joint Chiefs Chair Abandons Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sat Jan 6 21:01:35 UTC 2007


Ex-Joint Chiefs Chair Abandons Don't Ask, Don't Tell


 At a March 2005 press conference announcing House legislation to end the
ban on military service by openly gay and lesbian soldiers, Congressman
Martin Meehan (third from left) is joined by retired flag officers
Brigadier General Keith Kerr, Brigadier General Virgil Richard, Rear
Admiral Alan Steinman, and Brigadier General Evelyn Foote as well as C.
Dixon Osburn, SLDN's executive director.  The effort to overturn the ban
on openly gay and lesbian soldiers serving in the U.S. military won a
substantial New Year's boost on Tuesday when retired General John M.
Shalikashvili, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first
four years of the Clinton presidency, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that
he would support an end to the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy in place since
1993. "I now believe that if gay men and lesbians served openly in the
United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the Armed
Forces," the former military chief wrote.

At the same time, Shalikashvili warned that "the timing of the change
should be carefully considered," and that it is best taken up only after
the new Congress' "most urgent priorities, like developing a more
effective strategy in Iraq" are tackled in order to "help heal the
divisions that cleave our country." "Fighting early in this Congress to
lift the ban on openly gay service members is not likely to add to that
healing, and it risks alienating people whose support is needed to get
this country on the right track," he wrote. In interviews with Gay City
News, advocates-on Capitol Hill and elsewhere-for replacing the current
policy with one that allows for open gay and lesbian service agreed that
even with the retired general's support and new Democratic leadership in
Congress, change will not come in the near term. Though Shalikashvili did
not originate the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy-it was spurred by the
resistance of his predecessor Colin Powell and the determined opposition
of then-Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, who headed the Armed Services
Committee, to President Bill Clinton's plan to integrate the military-he
was responsible for implementing it once its details were announced in
December 1993 by Secretary of Defense Les Aspin.

In the immediate wake of Shalikashvili's op-ed, William Cohen (also
pictured on the cover), who served Clinton as defense secretary during his
second term, became the first former Pentagon chief to voice the view that
the policy is in need of review. "It's time to start thinking about it and
starting to discuss it," Cohen told CNN's Wolf Blitzer late Tuesday. "I
think what we're hearing from within the military is what we're hearing
from within society, that we're becoming a much more open, tolerant
society for diverse opinions and orientations." Cohen described the ban on
openly gay and lesbian soldiers as "a policy of discrimination."

Shalikashvili prefaced his argument this week by noting that President
George W. Bush a week before Christmas called for an increase in the size
of the U.S. military. A New York Times story about the president's
statement cited an estimate from the Army chief of staff, General Peter J.
Schoomaker, that his branch could only be grown by 6,000 to 7,000 soldiers
each year. Discharges under Don't Ask, Don't Tell have been as high as
1,200 per year, though they have consistently been below 1,000 since 9/11.
Still, the expulsion of highly trained personnel-including more than 300
gay and lesbian foreign language experts, at least 55 of whom had Arabic
language proficiency-at a time of heightened homeland security concerns
has created considerable consternation among authorities on military
preparedness. The former Joint Chiefs chairman explained that his new
posture was influenced in part by his experience in speaking to gay and
lesbian service members and veterans.

"Last year I held a number of meetings with gay soldiers and marines,
including some with combat experience in Iraq, and an openly gay senior
sailor who was serving effectively as a member of a nuclear submarine
crew," Shalikashvili wrote. "These conversations showed me just how much
the military has changed, and that gays and lesbians can be accepted by
their peers." He explained that back in the mid-'90s, in contrast, "I
supported the current policy because I believed that implementing a change
in the rules at that time would have been too burdensome for our troops
and commanders.  I still believe that to have been true." Shalikashvili
took specific note of a Zogby poll completed last month for the Michael D.
Palm Center at the University of California at Santa Barbara (formerly the
Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military) that found that
of 545 military personnel who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, three
quarters said they were comfortable interacting with gay people. He also
pointed out that 24 nations, including Britain and Israel, allow openly
gay service in their militaries. Last week, British defense authorities
said they would step up advertising to potential gay recruits to address
shortfalls in their force size.

According to Steve Ralls, a spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense
Network (SLDN), a Washington-based group that advocates on behalf of gay
and lesbian military personnel and works to end the ban on their open
service, his group in coalition with others helped identify gay and
lesbian soldiers who could provide Shalikashvili with insight into their
experiences. As for SLDN's knowledge that the former Joint Chiefs chairman
was planning his written statement, Ralls said, "We knew that General
Shalikashvili was considering doing the op-ed, but I was only informed
that it was appearing by the New York Times the night before. We did know
that he was working on the issue for some time." Ralls said the group had
not anticipated the comments Cohen made on CNN. Shalikashvili's change of
heart and his statement regarding military effectiveness are significant.
The argument that unit cohesion would be hurt by forcing heterosexual
soldiers to serve in close, even intimate quarters with openly gay
personnel was seized on by congressional opponents of Clinton's original
goal of opening up the military-and federal courts since that time have
consistently deferred to the Pentagon's judgment on that question.

And given that Clinton was forced by opponents to backtrack from his 1992
campaign pledge to the gay community in the face of a stormy backlash
during his first days in office, it was politically vital to the president
that he be able to maintain the fig leaf that the "compromise" would at
the least curb the harassment that gay soldiers, in the closet or not, had
long faced. The policy would purportedly protect any gay or lesbian
soldiers who did not openly proclaim their sexual orientation, and when
complaints arose early in its implementation that the purge of homosexuals
in the military was actually increasing, it was often Shalikashvili's
judgment that was publicly trotted out in defense. For example, in March
1995, in the face of criticism of Don't Ask's implementation, Kenneth H.
Bacon, a Pentagon spokesman, said, "Both [Defense] Secretary [William
Perry] and General Shalikashvili have commented on the policy and say from
their standpoint it seems to be working very well. It seems to be working
very well from the standpoint of the commanders. That has been our
experience, and it remains our experience."

The same week, Mike McCurry, the White House spokesman, said, "The
president is confident it's the right policy. He is concerned about some
of the news reports that he's seen, anecdotally, providing information
that some people have-the circumstances of which would seem to suggest
there might be some problem implementing the policy. But he is-we have
been in contact with the Pentagon on that and General Shalikashvili and
Secretary Perry have both been very public and very detailed in explaining
how the policy is working." This week's op-ed is not Shalikashvili's first
foray into politics. In 2004, he appeared at the Democratic National
Convention to endorse Senator John Kerry's presidential bid.

The new developments involving Shalikashvili and Cohen come after two
years in which official Washington has edged closer to a formal
re-evaluation of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, the opposition of the
current administration and many Capitol Hill Republicans notwithstanding.
In March 2005, surrounded by four retired flag officers, Massachusetts
Democratic Representative Martin Meehan introduced legislation to repeal
the ban. He now boasts 121 co-sponsors, including incoming Speaker Nancy
Pelosi-a tally just over half of the 218 needed to gain a House majority.
With California Republican Duncan Hunter at the helm of the Armed Services
Committee in last year's Congress, no hearings were held, but the Boston
Globe in a November article said that Meehan predicted hearings early in
2006 under the leadership of the new chairman, Democrat Ike Skelton of
Missouri. Meehan, while noting that Skelton supports Don't Ask, Don't
Tell, told the Globe that the new chairman was considering naming him to
chair a subcommittee with oversight of the military policy. A spokesperson
for Skelton told the Globe that no subcommittee assignments had been made
as of mid-November.

In response to a request for comment this week, Meehan's office forwarded
a more general written statement from the congressman, saying, in part,
"Repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell would be a landmark achievement for not
just gay and lesbian rights, but for civil rights. The policy is
detrimental to our national security and I'm glad to see that General
Shalikashvili agrees... I am looking forward to continuing an honest
dialogue with members of Congress and the general public, presenting all
the facts, and making it clear that the policy is discriminatory, harmful
to our military's readiness, and should be repealed." A call to Skelton's
office was referred to Armed Services Committee staff, who did not return
a phone request for comment. Nor did Hunter's office-nor those of the
incoming and outgoing Senate Armed Services chairmen, Michigan Democrat
Carl Levin and Virginia Republican John Warner-respond to requests for

Ralls, at SLDN, voiced optimism that the debate is moving forward on
Capitol Hill, even as he acknowledged that a central focus of efforts
continues to be "education," particularly of new Democratic
representatives, many of them "conservatives, from very conservative
districts." "Bringing them on board is not something that will happen
overnight," he said, explaining, "We're optimistic that next year at this
time we will be much further along." He added that Joe Sestak, a retired
vice admiral just elected as the new Democratic representative from a
suburban Philadelphia district, will be supporting a new policy on gay
service. Ralls also noted that, among congressional Republicans, retired
marine Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland, who supported Don't Ask, Don't Tell in
1993, now favors its repeal. The SLDN spokesman said that a sponsor for
Meehan's bill in the Senate, where it has not yet been introduced, will be
announced soon.

Writing on TheGayMilitaryTimes.com, retired Coast Guard Rear Admiral Alan
M. Steinman, who came out in late 2003 and was among those Shalikashvili
met with during the past year, said, "I have long advocated that until the
senior members of the military agree that gays and lesbians can serve
openly, Congress and the White House would never agree to repeal the DADT
law. No matter how strong the arguments we activists put forward, it would
never be enough." Denny Meyer, editor of TheGayMilitaryTimes.com and
president of American Veterans for Equal Rights New York (AVER-NY), was
particularly upbeat about the Times op ed. "What is significant here is
that the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon, at the time
the Don't Ask Don't Tell law was enacted, has now said that gays should be
allowed to serve openly," he told Gay City News. "The process is reversed,
the primary opposition to gays in the military at the time the law was
enacted is now telling Congress that he is no longer opposed. A reason for
reluctance in Congress is gone."



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