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Continued discharges anger 'don't ask, don't tell' critics

Gay-rights groups urge reversal now

By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / May 20, 2009
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WASHINGTON - A steady number of personnel are being discharged from the US military for being gay, according to the latest Pentagon statistics, which show 619 troops were kicked out last year under the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy that bars homosexuals from serving openly in the ranks.

The figures, which are on par with the previous four years, sparked new criticism from gay-rights advocates, who have grown frustrated with President Obama's unwillingness so far to take steps to lift the ban, despite a campaign pledge to do so.

"The numbers continue to make the case for the repeal of the statute," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a group leading the fight to change the law. "This will help make the case to the president and Congress that they need to proceed with urgency."

Of the discharges for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 410 were men and 209 were women, according to the figures obtained by the Globe from Pentagon personnel officials. That compares with a total of 627 discharges in fiscal year 2007; 612 in 2006; 726 in 2005; and 653 in 2004.

The new statistics come to light as the president faces growing calls to use his executive powers to place a moratorium on the discharges while he lobbies Congress to overturn the 1993 law, enacted as a compromise after then-President Bill Clinton set off a mutiny when he tried to allow gays to serve openly in uniform.

In recent weeks, White House officials have declared that the president still intends to follow through on his campaign promise, but will not intervene on current cases while the policy remains in place. At the same time, other administration officials have suggested a go-slow approach to ensure gays can be fully integrated with as little disruption as possible.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates recently likened overturning the ban to integrating blacks into the military, a process that took five years. The cautious view was also expressed by Army General David Petraeus, who oversees the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when he told a questioner at Kansas State University last month that "I'm not sure we want to add something else to our plate right now."

Yesterday, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters that only initial discussions about the policy have taken place and that there is no expectation of when it might be changed.

But opponents of the current policy say that while they believe the military and the nation are ready to accept gays in the military, the longer the White House and Congress wait the more opposition will build. They cite a recent letter sent to the president by 1,000 retired admirals and generals organized by the conservative Center for Military Readiness that urged him to maintain the ban or risk severely damaging troop morale.

"We feel an urgency and are desperately trying to convey that to the White House," said Sarvis, of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

Based on its own sources in the military, Sarvis's group believes that the discharges have continued apace since Obama took office, estimating that as many as 200 have been kicked out since January. Those numbers could not be verified.

He also said that the number of known discharges does not fully reflect the impact of the policy, which he said also drives hundreds - perhaps thousands - more to leave the military voluntarily.

Other leading gay-rights advocates expressed disappointment with the new administration's approach to the issue.

"It is the one area where the federal government is blatantly engaging in discriminatory conduct," said Richard Socarides, a lawyer who advised Clinton on gay issues. "For [Obama] to now be completely silent on this at best - and at worst have Gates equivocating - is very troubling to a lot of people."

Legislation to lift the ban has been proposed in the House - where Democrats enjoy a large majority - but there remain doubts that the Senate would go along. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, has sought unsuccessfully for months to find a Republican cosponsor for the bill, a step considered crucial to garnering enough votes to change the law.

Until then, the Pentagon maintains it must follow the law.

"This law requires the Department of Defense to separate from the armed forces members who engage in or attempt to engage in homosexual acts; state they are homosexual or bisexual; or marry or attempt to marry a person of the same biological sex," said Cynthia Smith a department spokeswoman.

More than 13,000 troops have been discharged for being gay since 1993.