The Pentagon is forcing some soldiers to stay in Iraq longer than expected and struggling to meet its recruiting goals. At the same time, it's kicking good soldiers out, and that makes me want to say, "Give Me a Break."
Thousands of soldiers serving in Iraq now have finished the tours they signed up for, but are being kept in Iraq anyway. Mark Bryant is one of those soldiers. In 2000, he signed up for what he thought would be a four-year hitch in the army. Last September, he completed those four years and was looking forward to spending more time with his wife and son. But what he and thousands of others didn't know was that the fine print in their contract said that they could be kept on longer in a period of war or national emergency.
Now his wife, Michelle, is upset that her son can only see his father's image on a TV screen. "I don't think it's fair, and because of that fine line print, he gets sent over there, when there are people wanting to go over there," she said.
The "people" she's referring to are soldiers who were kicked out of the military because they're gay. Although the phrase "Don't ask, don't tell" implies that if you don't announce you're gay you won't be discharged, that's not always how it works.
Jack Glover and David Hall, for example, did not tell. They were confronted by their commanding officer after another soldier told the commander that Glover and Hall were in a relationship. Both refused to say whether they were gay.
"Three months later, we were called in by our commander to say you know we've been told that we have to dis-enroll you," Hall said.
Justin Peacock was thrown out of the Coast Guard after another soldier reported that he had been holding hands with another man.
"The military said that I was gratifying, gratifying myself and it was a sexual desire and they had to discharge for it because it was a homosexual act," Justin said.
Glover, Hall and Peacock are among the 10,000 soldiers who have been kicked out of the military for being gay since "Don't Ask, don't Tell" was implemented in 1993.
This year, a GAO report found the military has discharged hundreds of gay soldiers even though they were in "critical occupations" -- people like Arabic translators and intelligence analysts. Recruiting and retraining soldiers to fill the positions left open by discharged gay soldiers has cost the Department of Defense almost $200 million.
"I was military intelligence. I had a skill they needed. And they just gave it up because I'm gay," said Tommy Cook.
"They're kicking gay Americans out who want to serve their country honorably when people are fighting and screaming to get out of the Army. It makes me so mad," said Glover.
The group we interviewed is part of a lawsuit filed by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. It is suing to overturn the military's policy on gays. They want to be reinstated into the military.
The Defense Department wouldn't agree to an interview about this, but sent us a statement that said, "Individuals discharged under the provisions of that law represent a very small percent of military discharges."
But small percentages make a difference.
In the first half of this fiscal year, which ended March 31, the Army missed its active-duty recruitment target by 6 percent. The violence in Iraq makes many potential soldiers hesitant to sign up. At a press conference last month, Francis J. Harvey, the secretary of the Army, was asked whether anybody at the Pentagon was reconsidering the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
"To my knowledge, it's certainly it's not within the purview of the Army to change that type of policy," Harvey said. He went on to say that he didn't see any need to change it.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Bob Maginnis was an adviser to the group that designed the current "Don't Ask, don't tell," policy, but he doesn't think gay should be permitted to serve at all. He thinks having gays serve compromises group "cohesion."
"Cohesion is the bonding that you get trust and confidence over a long period of time, soldiers trusting one another when they go into combat. You break that by, you know, putting in open homosexuals, and you lose that glue that keeps those units fighting," he said.
"It just so happens some people don't fit in as the military believes that they should," he added.
But the people I talked to did fit in. Their fellow soldiers liked them. When they were kicked out, people told them, "We're sorry to see you go."
Maginnis said, "You know, it [the military] is an incredibly discriminating organization, but after all it has an incredible mission. And that is to be combat effective on a battlefield, which has no mercy for the warrior."
What about gay soldiers who've served with honor? Stacy Vasquez was honored for her service in the Army. She won the Army commendation medal, the Army achievement medal and the Army good conduct medal as well as dozens of other awards.
"I served for over 10 years. I was there. And I didn't interrupt unit morale and cohesion. You can't tell me that the army promoted me seven times because I interrupted unit morale and cohesion," she said.
Maginnis' answer to that was that "most soldiers are given commendations if they've been around for any length of time, you know, if they've deployed once."
Vasquez pointed out that the military also resisted admitting blacks and women. "They said the same thing about women being in the army a long time ago as well. But here we are today fighting in Iraq. And I think we're doing just fine."
I suggested that women don't threaten people in the same way that homosexuality threatens some people.
"Well maybe to some people homosexuality is more threatening. But we're serving anyway. I mean 'don't ask, don't tell' doesn't mean we can't serve. It just means that they don't want to know about it," Vasquez said.
It's true that gay soldiers are already an integral part of the military. The Urban Institute estimates that 65,000 currently serve.
Some of them are openly gay. "Everybody knew. I mean I was out of the closet the whole time I was there," Justin said.
"The British have gay soldiers, the Australians have gay soldiers, they're serving right next to our service members in Iraq right now," David said.
That's true. According to the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military based out of the University of California at Santa Barbara, of the 26 NATO countries, most -- including Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Slovenia, Spain and Great Britain -- allow openly gay people to serve.
Their troops are "very different than ours," said Maginnis. "We have forced intimate situations in foreign areas. ... The Brits don't have nearly the same type of concentration and forward deployment as the United States."
The American military is so different that what works for our allies will not work for us? It is wrong that while soldiers like Mark Bryant want to return to their families we're keeping top soldiers out.
Give Me a Break.