Don't Ask, don't translate

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Jun 8 11:59:21 UTC 2007

June 8, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor

Don't Ask, Don't Translate


IMAGINE for a moment an American soldier deep in the Iraqi desert. His
unit is about to head out when he receives a cable detailing an insurgent
ambush right in his convoys path. With this information, he and his
soldiers are now prepared for the danger that lies ahead. Reports like
these are regularly sent from military translators desks, providing
critical, often life-saving intelligence to troops fighting in Iraq and
Afghanistan. But the military has a desperate shortage of linguists
trained to translate such invaluable information and convey it to the war

The lack of qualified translators has been a pressing issue for some time
the Army had filled only half its authorized positions for Arabic
translators in 2001. Cables went untranslated on Sept. 10 that might have
prevented the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Today, the American Embassy
in Baghdad has nearly 1,000 personnel, but only a handful of fluent Arabic
speakers. I was an Arabic translator. After joining the Navy in 2003, I
attended the Defense Language Institute, graduated in the top 10 percent
of my class and then spent two years giving our troops the critical
translation services they desperately needed. I was ready to serve in

But I never got to. In March, I was ousted from the Navy under the don't
ask, don't tell policy, which mandates dismissal if a service member is
found to be gay. My story begins almost a year ago when my roommate, who
is also gay, was deployed to Falluja. We communicated the only way we
could: using the militarys instant-messaging system on monitored
government computers.  These electronic conversations are lifelines,
keeping soldiers sane while mortars land meters away. Then, last October
the annual inspection of my base, Fort Gordon, Ga., included a perusal of
the government computer chat system; inspectors identified 70 service
members whose use violated policy. The range of violations was broad:
people were flagged for everything from profanity to outright discussions
of explicit sexual activity. Among those charged were my former roommate
and me. Our messages had included references to our social lives comments
that were otherwise unremarkable, except that they indicated we were both

I could have written a statement denying that I was homosexual, but lying
did not seem like the right thing to do. My roommate made the same
decision, though he was allowed to remain in Iraq until the scheduled end
of his tour. The result was the termination of our careers, and the loss
to the military of two more Arabic translators. The 68 other heterosexual
service members remained on active duty, despite many having committed
violations far more egregious than ours; the Pentagon apparently doesn't
consider hate speech, derogatory comments about women or sexual misconduct
grounds for dismissal.

My supervisors did not want to lose me. Most of my peers knew I was gay,
and that didn't bother them. I was always accepted as a member of the team.
And my experience was not anomalous: polls of veterans from Iraq and
Afghanistan show an overwhelming majority are comfortable with gays. Many
were aware of at least one gay person in their unit and had no problem
with it. Don't ask, don't tell does nothing but deprive the military of
talent it needs and invade the privacy of gay service members just trying
to do their jobs and live their lives. Political and military leaders who
support the current law may believe that homosexual soldiers threaten unit
cohesion and military readiness, but the real damage is caused by denying
enlistment to patriotic Americans and wrenching qualified individuals out
of effective military units. This does not serve the military or the
nation well.

Consider: more than 58 Arabic linguists have been kicked out since don't
ask, don't tell was instituted. How much valuable intelligence could those
men and women be providing today to troops in harms way? In addition to
those translators, 11,000 other service members have been ousted since the
don't ask, don't tell policy was passed by Congress in 1993. Many held
critical jobs in intelligence, medicine and counterterrorism. An untold
number of closeted gay military members don't re-enlist because of the
pressure the law puts on them. This is the real cost of the ban and, with
our military so overcommitted and undermanned, its too high to pay.

In response to difficult recruiting prospects, the Army has already taken
a number of steps, lengthening soldiers deployments to 15 months from 12,
enlisting felons and extending the age limit to 42. Why then wont Congress
pass a bill like the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would
repeal don't ask, don't tell? The bipartisan bill, by some analysts
estimates, could add more than 41,000 soldiers all gay, of course. As the
friends I once served with head off to 15-month deployments, I regret I'm
not there to lessen their burden and to serve my country. I'm trained to
fight, I speak Arabic and I'm willing to serve. No recruiter needs to make
a persuasive argument to sign me up. I'm ready, and I'm waiting.

Stephen Benjamin is a former petty officer second class in the Navy.


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