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No More Mr. Nice Guy? : Veteran Now Backs Action to Overturn Military's Gay Policy

March 17, 1994|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — A year ago, Jim Woodward still had hope.

The former Navy officer had spent two decades working to end the Pentagon's ban on gay men and lesbians in the military and--heartened by President Clinton's 1992 campaign promise--believed that his willingness to play by the rules would finally pay off.

The son of bedrock New England Republicans and a strong believer in conservative doctrine, Woodward had enlisted in the Navy in 1972 "to fight communism." His said his strong moral sense--drilled into him by his Episcopalian upbringing and at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., where he studied economics--compelled him to tell the truth about his sexual orientation during induction into the wartime Navy, which accepted him anyway.

But he was booted out in 1974 after openly offering support to a young gay enlisted man who was being harassed aboard the aircraft carrier Constellation, and then acknowledging his own homosexuality to his commanding officer, according to court documents.

So he set about to change the rules. First, he sued the Navy, seeking reinstatement to active duty. (His bid eventually was turned down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989.) Then, in 1985, he founded the San Diego Veterans Assn. It became the first gay veterans group in the country to include members still on active duty, yet it gained the acceptance of mainstream veterans groups, and--eventually--some Navy officials.

In the meantime, he worked as a paramedic and a firefighter in Santee, and in his spare time counseled gay and lesbian servicemen and women.

After Clinton's inauguration, several Navy admirals in San Diego anticipated an executive order lifting the ban. Acting discreetly, they asked Woodward, through local civilian gay leaders, to help the Navy set up sensitivity classes for heterosexual sailors, say several members of the SDVA. A Navy official here, who requested anonymity, confirmed the request, calling it "a prudent move."

Navy officials declined to discuss Woodward or the SDVA publicly.

But no sooner had the admirals approached the SDVA than Clinton retreated under intense Pentagon and congressional pressure, so the admirals broke off contact.

Today, Woodward, an administrator with San Diego County's Health Services Department, is bitter and disillusioned. Last fall he shocked friends by announcing plans to leave the SDVA and more recently by advocating militant measures, such as equipment sabotage or disobeying orders, aimed at getting the ban repealed.

"We came this close last year to seeing Clinton's promise fulfilled," Woodward said, putting thumb and forefinger together. "God, it was this close."

He said the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" compromise, implemented this month, helped fuel his newfound radicalism. The policy has enraged gay-rights groups, who say it amounts to a continued ban.

"I don't think there will be complete change just through persuasion," said Woodward, 43, during a recent interview in his home outside San Diego, which he shares with his companion of almost 20 years, Sal Griego.

Few of his friends within the 80-member SDVA endorse his views, and even Woodward expresses ambivalence about resorting to militant tactics.

"I'm not sure that within my own conscience I am capable of doing those things. . . . But I think those things are probably necessary if we want to get the government out of the business of sanctioning abuses against gay people," he said.

Woodward's recent shift stems in part from the October, 1992, slaying of Navy radioman Allen R. Schindler, who was gay. Schindler, 22, was beaten and killed in a public restroom in Sasebo, Japan. A shipmate was convicted in the killing, which Navy prosecutors said was a case of gay bashing. Gay groups accused the Navy of a cover-up early on in the case.

When Schindler's belongings were shipped to his family in Chicago, his mother found Woodward's name and phone number written on a slip of paper.

"I never talked to him, but to this day I wonder if I could have given him some advice that would have saved his life," Woodward said.

As for his resignation last month from the veterans group he founded, Woodward said: "I want the SDVA to establish its own identity. As long as I'm on the board, I tend to be the most influential personality. You could say my life has taken a new direction. It requires a different approach to the struggle."

As late as 1992 the Navy acted publicly as if the SDVA and Woodward did not exist. But it was difficult to ignore a group that was counseling gay sailors and Marines whose sex lives were being investigated by the military.

Woodward read the admirals' overtures in 1993 as a sign that his nearly 20-year struggle to end discrimination against gays in the military had finally succeeded. He still hadn't lost faith in the political and military systems; not even when several federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, rejected his bid to remain in the Navy.

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