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9 Gay Linguists Discharged From the Army

Soldiers' dismissals stem from violations of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. Critics call move unwise, given a shortage of Arabic translators.

November 16, 2002|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

The Army has discharged nine student linguists, including at least six learning Arabic, for violating the "don't ask, don't tell" policy covering homosexuals in the military.

The dismissals occurred over the last year at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, the Army's principal language training center, at a time when the U.S. has been attempting to increase proficiency in Middle Eastern languages.

Most of the discharges occurred after trainees voluntarily made their sexual orientation public. Two men were dismissed when they were found together after curfew, said Harvey Perritt, a spokesman for the Army Training and Doctrine Command at Ft. Monroe, Va.

The Army said it is simply carrying out a Defense Department policy established by the Clinton administration and that the students, by their actions, identified themselves as gay.

But gay activists and some in Congress say the dismissals show the policy is unworkable, unfair and unwise while the military is preparing for possible action in Iraq.

"This is a new height of stupidity," said Rep. Barney Frank, an openly gay member of Congress from Massachusetts. "If anything is a critical need right now, it is people conversant in Arabic."

The "don't ask, don't tell" policy was created to protect national security. But Frank and other critics say it is having the opposite effect.

"This puts prejudice ahead of national security," Frank said.

The Monterey post is an elite language training facility for a variety of sophisticated jobs in foreign countries, including conducting covert operations.

Arabic is one of the most difficult languages to learn, according to Don Hamilton, a staff member of the National Commission on Terrorism. The commission produced a report two years ago describing a "very severe" shortage of translators, and Hamilton said it can take two years to become even modestly proficient in Arabic.

The discharged students were at various stages of training and included six learning Arabic, two taking Korean and one studying the Mandarin dialect of Chinese, Perritt said. Lawyers for the soldiers gave a slightly different accounting, saying seven were learning Arabic, one Mandarin and one Korean.

The students were all part of the fiscal year 2002 class of 516. Of the total, 365 graduated.

"This really illustrates the fallacy of this policy," said Sharra Greer, a spokeswoman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network in Washington, D.C.

"We are losing qualified, skilled people because of it," she said.

According to critics, the policy was an attempt to distinguish sexual orientation from behavior. Under the policy, soldiers are to keep sexual preference a private matter.

"That difference is a complete myth," said Greer, who said the policy has been interpreted to include jokes or statements sympathetic to homosexuals.

She said the two linguists caught after curfew were not found engaged in sexual activity. The curfew violation gave the military cause to search the room. A Valentine's Day card was found, along with a non-pornographic gay movie, Greer said.

Critics said the students harmed their case by flouting rules, but Greer argued that if a heterosexual couple had been caught together after curfew, the repercussions would have been far less severe.

The other seven came forward over a period of months, in part because they were concerned by the atmosphere of hostility at the institute and were allegedly harassed by other students, Greer said.

Aaron Belkin, an assistant professor of politics at UC Santa Barbara, said 23 other militaries around the world have already lifted bans on gays.

Greer said many who were discharged left regretfully.

"Most people, if they were allowed to serve openly, would continue serving," she said.

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