'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' debate revived

Staff WriterFebruary 28, 2010 

Tar Heel troops are always sent into battle when the U.S. goes to war. The fight over whether to allow gays to serve in the military has warriors from North Carolina at its front lines, too.

President Barack Obama's pledge during his state of the union address to work with Congress and the military to repeal the ban known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" renewed debate over whether homosexuality is a threat to unit cohesion or just another attribute that disappears in a uniform.

Proponents of the gay ban say openly homosexual troops create privacy and morale problems, and dropping the ban would cause service members to leave the armed forces in droves. Those who favor repealing the ban say that doing so would bring qualified troops into service and that the current policy forces gay troops to lie.

North Carolina's U.S. senators, Kay Hagan and Richard Burr, sit on the Senate Armed Services Committee and could help shape the discussion.

Hagan has said she believes "anyone willing and able to serve ought to be able to do so." Burr said he is in favor of whatever best serves the military.

For more about four others with North Carolina connections who are involved in the debate, see Page 4B.

Alex Nicholson

Alex Nicholson says the federal law that prohibits people who are openly gay from serving in the U.S. military is discriminatory and arbitrarily enforced. But worse, he said, is that it diminishes national security by keeping thousands of otherwise qualified people out of the armed forces.

"It's still an issue of civil rights and fairness," said Nicholson, founder of Servicemembers United, a Washington advocacy group for gay veterans and active-duty military. "But we focus on the benefits the military would accrue by repealing this law."

Nicholson might himself be considered a prized recruit. After graduating from Western Guilford High School outside Greensboro, he spent a year in college before joining the military in 2001. The son of a career infantryman, he went into the Army, bent on a job in intelligence.

He was just finishing intelligence training when he was called into an office before three superior officers who said: A colleague thinks you're gay. Are you?

Nicholson said he had been vaguely aware of the law; everybody knew the phrase "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

He didn't think it would be a problem. But fellow soldiers would ask, Why aren't you dating? Why don't you go out with so-and-so?

"You don't realize until you get in: It shouldn't be called, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'" Nicholson said. "It should be called, 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell, don't happen to be found out any time, anywhere, any place.'"

After he was discharged, Nicholson earned a master's degree and a Ph.D, spending a year in a Defense Department program learning Arabic. If the law were changed, he said, he'd like to go back into the Army.

Augustine Acevedo

Somewhere in the stacks of forms he filled out to join the Army on an ROTC commission was a question that asked Augustine Acevedo if he had ever participated in a homosexual act.

He answered with the truth. No.

Acevedo, who lives in Charlotte, now thinks the military shouldn't ask that question because it's irrelevant. He has supported the fight to repeal the ban on gays in the military by raising money for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a Washington nonprofit that provides legal services to military personnel affected by "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

In 1984, Acevedo was in his early 20s. "I was just beginning to think about my sexuality," he said.

At his first assignment with the military, he met someone - a fellow officer - and knew, for sure, he was gay.

The next six years were spent in a careful dance between his professional life, as an ambitious soldier headed for a job as an embassy attaché, and his private life, as a man in a relationship with another man. At dinners, officers' wives tried to set him up with friends.

Eventually, the stress of compartmentalizing his life became too much, Acevedo said, and he resigned from the Army in 1992, leaving a promising career.

Acevedo, 48, says the time is right to change the law.

"For me, it's a civil rights thing, and for people to have to lie about who they are, that's a question of integrity," Acevedo said.

"And I don't think someone's sexual orientation has anything to do with how they do their jobs. I don't think most people care. That certainly is not the first thing you're going to ask on the war front.

All you care is that they can shoot."

William Woodruff

Retired military attorney William Woodruff sees only one question that must be answered regarding gays in the military: Would allowing openly gay men and women into the ranks hurt combat effectiveness?

Until Adm. Mike Mullen, head of the joint chiefs of staff, said earlier this month he believes it's time to allow gays to serve openly, the military's stance has been the same since the Revolutionary War. That is, the presence of gays is detrimental to good order and discipline within the force.

As a colonel in the Army's legal corps, it was Woodruff's job to defend that position and others against civil lawsuits.

In 1992, shortly after Woodruff retired from the Army and took a teaching job at Campbell University's law school, the government sought his opinion on the wording of a law being considered regarding gays in the military. He also was asked to analyze a Rand Corp. study on the issue.

Recently, the House Armed Serviced Committee asked if it could send the work Woodruff did in 1992 to the Department of Defense, which will be taking up the issue again.

Yes, Woodruff said. While he was at it, he sent an unsolicited opinion on the matter to the defense department's general counsel.

He gave two bits of advice, he said. First, the president should not use his executive authority to end discharges for homosexuality. The number of discharges is relatively small - fewer than 15,000 since 1994 - and Congress intended presidential stop-loss orders, which keep people from leaving the military, to be used only in national emergencies.

Second, and more at the heart of the matter, Woodruff said, is that the military must not enter into a practice of deciding which gays to allow in: Ones with foreign-language skills? Those who are good with computers?

The military deals with groups, not individuals. If it wavers on sexuality, Woodruff said, it might also have to let in aged-out applicants who are unusually fit, or let certain women onto submarines.

"You've got a force of a million," Woodruff said. "How are you going to do that?"

Congress must decide, Woodruff said, and it must be all or nothing. Gays are allowed to serve or they're not.

Tim D'Annunzio

Congressional hopeful Tim D'Annunzio says the only thing that needs to be changed regarding gays and the military is the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, not the law.

The policy was intended to discourage military leaders from investigating a person's sexuality unless they had credible evidence of homosexuality. The law said those who engage in homosexual behavior will be discharged.

D'Annunzio, a Republican running in the state's 8th district, said gays should be barred from the military, whether they are open about their sexuality or not.

"Besides the obvious morale issues, and the realities of the living arrangements that the military is put under, it gets down to where the military becomes a social experiment," he said.

D'Annunzio is a former Army infantryman and Golden Knight parachutist, and now owns Paraclete XP SkyVenture, a freefall simulator in Hoke County.

He says the push to allow gays in the military is a step toward a national referendum on gay marriage. He said it would work like this: First, the military accepts openly gay recruits. Some of those recruits get married in states where it's allowed, then move to posts in states where it's not. They ask for the marriage to be recognized by the military and then by surrounding communities.

"That argument would be fought, I guarantee it," D'Annunzio said.

D'Annunzio lays out his argument against repealing the policy on his Web site and has made it a part of his campaign.

"Before any change is made to the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy, we must first realize the implications this will have on states' rights," he said on the site, "and oppose the Obama administration's newest assault on our Constitution."

martha.quillin@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8989

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