Although his language skills will be in high demand if the United States attacks Iraq, Alastair Gamble knows he won't be going to the Gulf.
Gamble, who has had training by the Army to interrogate prisoners in Arabic, was discharged last summer for being gay.
Dr. Monica Hill, an Air Force reservist who received a military scholarship to complete her medical studies, was eager to serve in the Gulf, too. But she won't be going either: she was discharged in October after notifying her superiors of her homosexuality because she wanted to care for her partner, who was dying of cancer.
Both Gamble, 24, and Hill, 35, have skills that are in short supply in the military. They are among the more than 8,500 men and women the Pentagon says have been discharged from the armed forces since the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy came into force in 1994, after much debate in the military and in Congress.
Under the policy, superiors are barred from asking about service members' sexuality, and gay people can serve in the military as long as they don't disclose their sexuality or engage in homosexual acts. If they do, they are discharged under the military's long standing ban on homosexual conduct.
Critics say this policy comes at a huge cost to military effectiveness and American values.
"Discharging someone who is willing to fight and serve their country simply because of who they love in their private life makes no sense," said Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch, which released a report last week saying the policy is outdated and discriminatory. The group estimated that it has cost the military more than $200 million to replace those discharged since 1994.
Defenders of the policy argue that homosexuality is a potentially disruptive element in the ranks. "The impact of having someone who's sexually attracted to another person of the same sex will be detrimental to the unit cohesion, and the morale of that unit," said Gen. Michael Nardotti, a combat veteran who was for many years the Army's chief lawyer.
Kicked Out After Being Caught
When he enlisted, Gamble thought the policy would not be a problem for him: The Army wouldn't ask him if he was gay, and he would keep his sexual orientation to himself. He received training for Army intelligence missions and was selected to study Arabic at the prestigious Defense Language Institute. But then he fell in love with another soldier studying at the institute, Rob Hicks, an expert in Korean.
After eight months of romance, Hicks spent the night in Gamble's barrack, violating an Army rule that no soldier — male or female, gay or straight — can spend the night with another. Unfortunately, there was a rare overnight inspection and they were caught.
Gamble says there were many heterosexual couples caught that night, who were punished with 10 days' extra duty. But after a search of Gamble's room found a picture and letters making it clear he and Hicks were having a relationship, both men were discharged.
Contrary to those who say homosexuality is bad for morale, Gamble says that no one in his unit — including his superiors — seemed glad to see him go. "I went into my first sergeant.... He sat down and went over my service record and he looked up and says, 'What a waste!'"
Including Gamble and Hicks, 10 students have been dismissed from the language institute in recent months for violating the homosexuality policy, seven of whom were Arabic specialists.
Admitted Homosexuality to Be With Sick Partner
During her nearly seven years in the Air Force Reserve, Hill had kept her relationship with her longtime partner Terri Cason discreet. When she got orders to report for active duty at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C., they decided that Cason would stay behind in Ohio to keep it that way.
But two weeks before Hill was due to move, Cason, 43, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. In the space of a week, Hill says, Cason went from being fully capable to "not knowing what comes after the letter D in the alphabet."
If she and Cason were a married heterosexual couple, the Air Force might have granted a compassionate deferment. But Hill knew she did not qualify and believed she had only one option: to tell her superiors she was a lesbian so she would be discharged.
"It was the easiest and hardest decision I ever made in my life," she said. "If I had any other way to fulfill my active duty commitment and take care of Terri I would have done so."
Ready to Fight
Gay men and women continue to serve in the military, however, and say they are ready to take part if war comes.
One serviceman already deployed in the Middle East told ABCNEWS the other members of his unit know he is gay. He said he is ready to fight and if necessary die, but that he doesn't worry that his sexuality will affect his unit's readiness for combat. "It all comes down to that basically age-old question: I have your back and you have mine. That's all that matters," he said.