On october 25, one week after CIA Director George Tenet warned that the United States now faces a terrorist threat every bit as grave as it did the summer before the September 11 attacks, the Council on Foreign Relations issued the most sobering report to date: "America remains dangerously unprepared to prevent and respond to a catastrophic terrorist attack. In all likelihood, the next attack will result in even greater casualties and widespread disruption to American lives and the economy."
Which makes it all the more shocking that, in a two-month period this fall, the Defense Language Institute (DLI)--an elite training school for military linguists in Monterey, California--discharged seven fully competent Arabic linguists. The reason? They were discovered to be gay.
Dli is a language-training center run by the Army, but soldiers from all major military branches study there. Because of its battery of entrance tests and the intensity of its courses, DLI is reputed to attract students who are older and more skilled than most enlisted personnel. Its Northern California location also, it seems, attracts a large share of gay students. "There were way too many gay people at DLI for anybody to fear the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy," says one gay former student who arrived at DLI in 2001. While there, he was out to all his gay peers and to any enlisted personnel who seemed gay-friendly. "Nobody cared," he explains. "I knew someone who was a flaming queen in a uniform, and nobody cared. Sometimes we lived on halls that were more than 50 percent homosexual. ... I never even got a sideways glance."
Still, this tolerant atmosphere does not extend to commanders, who, when a soldier's homosexuality is clearly discovered, are forced by federal law to pursue and expel him. This includes highly trained linguists like Alastair Gamble, an Emory University-educated Army specialist fired from DLI this August after completing more than 30 weeks of intensive Arabic. (DLI's Arabic course requires 63 weeks for a basic knowledge, compared with only 25 weeks for Spanish, French, Italian, or Portuguese, and only the strongest students are selected to take it.) Gamble was a humanintelligence collector, a position the GAO report cited as one of the Army's "greatest foreign language needs." And Gamble was a catch for DLI in other ways, too. He had studied German for seven years in high school and continued in college, where he also studied Latin and linguistics. Once in the Army, he completed interrogation training, a nine-week intelligence course that trains a small number of soldiers to collect information through direct questioning techniques. He then spent six weeks working for the Foreign Area Officer program, which trains officers to work with U.S. allies, where his performance won him a Certificate of Commendation from his commander. He entered DLI in June 2001 to study Arabic and earned a perfect 300 on his physical fitness test. Gamble reports that his grades placed him at the top of his class and that several teachers told him they thought he was the strongest student in the class.
In April, Gamble was finishing his second semester of the Arabic basic course at DLI when, during a surprise "health and welfare" inspection at 3:30 a.m., he was caught in his room with his boyfriend, also an army language specialist. (In eight months of dating, the two men say they had never before broken visitation policies. But Gamble's boyfriend was nearing the end of his course and preparing to relocate to Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas. As their separation approached, they decided they could risk one night of sleeping side by side.) After the two men were found in bed, nearly a dozen people searched the room while Gamble was escorted to his First Sergeant's office. Gamble says he was not yet thinking about being discharged. "I was just absolutely embarrassed," he recalls. "There's really nothing like having someone who's your age, but a slight rank above you, discussing whether or not lube is sufficient evidence to prove homosexuality. It's like getting felt up; it's horrible." The search turned up a gay-themed, non-pornographic film, photographs showing affectionate, but not sexual, behavior between Gamble and his boyfriend, and several gift cards expressing romantic sentiments. Two weeks later, Gamble was officially notified that his unit was initiating an investigation into his sexual orientation. He was pulled from class and honorably discharged on August 2. About eight weeks later, his boyfriend was discharged as well.
Gamble and his boyfriend are not alone. The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (sldn), a legal aid and advocacy organization that assists men and women harmed by "don't ask, don't tell," announced in its latest quarterly report that it had assisted six other Arabic speakers recently discharged from DLI for being gay. Though only two chose to speak publicly, sldn reports that all seven soldiers were fired while in the midst of, or having completed, the intensive DLI Arabic training course.
The army has cast the firings as routine enforcement of Army regulations. Harvey Perritt, a spokesman for U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, says the expulsions of competent Arabic linguists are "not relevant" to the nation's current war against largely Arabic-speaking terrorists. He insists that discharges resulting from "don't ask, don't tell" are consistent with those for other violations of Army regulations. "If someone is enrolled somewhere and they don't pass the P.T. [physical training] standards," he says, by way of comparison, "they'll be discharged. There are policies and they are always in effect."
But, regardless of what you believe about gays in the military, that's just not true. Both during the Gulf war and after the September 11 attacks, the Pentagon authorized "stop-loss" orders, allowing branch secretaries to retain soldiers who would otherwise be discharged for committing petty crimes, minor physical shortcomings, or other reasons. What's more, the military even has a history of suspending personnel policies regarding gays and lesbians during wartime, when it needs maximum retention of soldiers. In 1991, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Pentagon had allowed homosexuals to serve in the Persian Gulf, despite a ban on all gay service, and only moved to discharge several gay veterans after the war ended. For his best-selling 1993 book, Conduct Unbecoming, the late San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts interviewed two Arab-language specialists fired from the Army for being gay. According to Shilts, the NSA contacted the two when the Gulf war began, begging them to return to service to help the war effort. (The two men declined.)
In other words, the military implicitly acknowledges that, during wartime, the gay ban may undermine national security rather than protect it. And since its leaders have consistently argued that national security should be the only criterion for determining whether gays should serve, it may be time for a new look at an "interim" policy formulated nearly ten years ago. Today's war on terrorism is less about squadrons and battalions than about deciphering the behavior of a shadowy enemy who attacks in secret. For national security's sake, let's hope our leaders are finally ready to acknowledge in public what they've admitted privately for quite some time: It is this enemy that threatens our nation's freedoms and survival, not the open homosexuality of patriotic Americans standing ready to serve.
By Nathaniel Frank