'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Revisited

The first U.S. Marine seriously wounded in Iraq, Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, lost his leg when he stepped on a land mine, but today he and his prosthetic leg will march right into one of the most contentious battles in American politics.

Alva will stand with Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., as a bipartisan group of Congress members introduces legislation to overturn the ban on openly gay and lesbian troops serving in the military.

Alva says that losing his leg forced him out of the closet.

"It made me realize everything that I had to actually speak up for," Alva said to ABC News in an exclusive TV interview, "basically the rights and privileges of what I as an individual have earned in this country."

He imagines conversations with the political opponents he knows he will now face.

"'OK buddy,'" he said, "'you pick up a gun and you go fight in Iraq or Afghanistan for a while, then you could come back and we can have a talk because I've actually sacrificed, I've actually done duty and served in this country for your rights and freedom.'"

The Pentagon has long maintained that the ban is necessary for unit cohesion.

"The bottom line for the military is, 'Is this a policy change that's going to help promote combat effectiveness?'" said retired Lt. Col. Robert "Bob" Maginnis. "I see no evidence of that."

Alva hopes that he can change minds by arguing the ban is simply unfair to gays and lesbian service members who are already serving their nation honorably, not to mention Americans who want to serve.

He and his partner will never be able to live under the same rules and regulations applied to a husband and wife, for instance.

But increasingly, advocates for lifting the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" compromise that President Clinton signed into law in 1993 argue that the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly is a national security issue.

The military is stretched thin, the argument goes, and the unit cohesion commanders argue is threatened with the presence of "out" soldiers and Marines pales in comparison with the loss of specialists.

Data released today by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group that supports lifting the ban, suggests that the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban is disproportionately affecting troops in key specialties.

Of 742 such dismissals in fiscal year 2005, the highest number than in any category -- 49 -- were medical personnel. An additional 40 were law enforcement officers, along with 14 intelligence officers, 35 infantrymen, and seven nuclear, biological and chemical warfare specialists.

This generally squares with the Government Accountability Office's 2004 study, which found that of the 9,488 service members who at that point had been discharged from the military for gay and lesbian conduct since 1993, approximately 757 -- or 8 percent -- "held critical occupations," meaning the kinds of jobs for which the Pentagon offers selective reenlistment bonuses.

That number included 322 with "skills in an important language such as Arabic, Farsi or Korean."

Maginnis says that the military has "come to the conclusion that if we embrace homosexuality openly in the military than that has far more of a detrimental impact than will keeping someone just because they happen to have a critical skill."

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