Georgia: 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy leads to honorable discharge

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jul 19 14:47:39 UTC 2007

* 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy leads to honorable discharge
* - Moni Basu

Cox News Service
Winston-Salem Journal
Thursday, July 19, 2007

 NORCROSS, GA. - Before anyone knew his secret, Stephen Benjamin's world was
one of conservative Christianity, *Star Trek* books and the Internet. As a
teen, he was a wannabe hacker who spent hours staring at a monitor in his
messy basement bedroom, not intending to do damage but curious to see if he
could. That's how he dealt with the discomfort of being unable to
tell.Butin the end, it was a computer that told on him. The Navy
discharged Benjamin in March after scrutiny of electronic messages sent on a
classified system tipped off inspectors to him.

Benjamin, a petty officer 2nd class, was valuable to the military as an
Arabic translator. But he is also gay. In his e-mails to his Fort Gordon
roommate, then stationed in Iraq, he referred to himself as gay and
discussed going out on a date with a guy. The Navy dismissed him under the
"don't ask, don't tell" law, which allows gays to serve in the military only
if they keep their sexual orientation private and do not engage in
homosexual acts. Since the policy was adopted in 1993, 11,000 men and women
in uniform, the size of an Army light infantry division, have been similarly

Until he was let go and media attention ensued, no one in Benjamin's family
or in his hometown of Bellingham, Mass., knew. Ironically, the few who did
know were friends in the military. These days, a Google search on Benjamin's
name yields a dizzying array of hits, all containing the word gay."It's kind
of weird to be out on this level," he said, staring at his laptop screen in
his apartment in Norcross, Ga. At 23, Benjamin's military career was
finished. He feared his relationship with his parents would be finished,
too. They raised him in the Assemblies of God, a socially conservative
Pentecostal church that does not accept homosexuality.

Conversations with his father were always businesslike, he said. But he
spent afternoons with his mother at bookstores, sipping coffee. They watched
the television home-design show *Trading Spaces.* They talked about
everything except the most personal issue of all. "I felt they would blame
themselves," he said. Like so many Americans, Benjamin was moved by the
Sept. 11 tragedy and felt compelled to serve his country. His grandfather
and great-grandfather had served in the Navy.

After basic training, he spent 63 weeks studying Arabic eight hours a day at
the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif.

He kept his sexuality to himself.

He knew his role as a linguist would be vital to fending off incidents of

He believed that the Sept. 11 attacks might have been prevented had the
military not suffered from a shortage of translators. Perhaps, he said, some
of the cables carrying al-Qaida messages might have been deciphered.

Benjamin excelled in his Arabic course and was assigned for duty at Fort
Gordon, on a team of linguists who communicated constantly with deployed
troops, sometimes translating information that let them know of looming

"I was making a pretty big difference," Benjamin said. "I saw the results of
what we were doing."

The main channel of communication with co-workers and troops was a highly
classified computer chat system. Sometimes the chats included comments about
the weather. Or "do you want to go grab some food?"

By now, he was comfortable sending messages about his personal life to close
friends, many of whom were also gay service members. Things started
unraveling for him after a random inspection last October of the Augusta
military base, including a perusal of the government chat system. Inspectors
identified 70 service members who used the system improperly - from using
profanity to sexually explicit discussions.

In comparison to some, Benjamin's statements to his former roommate were
unremarkable. He mentioned he was dating someone. He said he thought a guy
in his unit was cute. "It was obvious we were gay," Benjamin said.

Of the 70 identified as offenders, he said, only two were discharged in
March: he and his roommate.

Benjamin didn't want to leave Georgia. He wanted to be with the "family," a
term he said gay members of the armed services use to identify other gays.

Benjamin's computer skills helped him land a job with a software company in
Norcross; he moved there in April. He knew an Associated Press story on the
firing of gay linguists soon would be published. That's when he finally sat
down to tell his parents. "There's something I need to tell you," he began
in an e-mail. It was a letter he had written a dozen times before but never
found the courage to mail.

"The hardest thing I've ever done in my life was to hit the 'send' button,"
he said.

The response from his mother came two days later. "Is it something we did?
God loves you. You can change."

They argued in e-mails. On Mother's Day, Benjamin finally called home.

"We haven't talked about it too much since then," he said recently. "Maybe
they are in denial. I love my country. I'm willing to serve. I believe in
the (democratic) process, and I think things will get fixed."

Benjamin misses his military job. He rarely converses in Arabic anymore. But
he knows he has to move on.

He took a step earlier this month when his parents called to say they
watched an online video he made for the Service members Legal Defense
Network, a national nonprofit group that helps those affected by "don't ask,
don't tell."

Then his parents signed the petition to repeal the ban on gays in the
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