'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Ripe for Change?

The price of freedom has never been lost on Justin Hager.

His father served in Vietnam, and his grandfather spent time in a concentration camp during World War II.

For the last five years, the 20-year-old University of Wisconsin-Madison student has dreamed about a life in the armed forces.

On Wednesday, Hager met with military recruiters.

After disclosing that he was gay, however, he said he was shown the door.

"The recruiters were very nice, respectful and courteous," said Hager, a 6-foot, 230-pound former high school powerlifter.

"But it's really frustrating. It's painful to deal with the acceptance that this is the end of the road for my military service."

Before his meeting, Hager was well aware of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that bars openly gay men and women from serving in the armed forces.

Hager's failed enlistment was just one of several coordinated trips to recruiting offices in recent weeks by gay rights activists who hope to change the 13-year-old policy.

"We're not here as a publicity stunt," Hager said. "I want to serve alongside my fellow Americans. That's why we're here."

'It's the Worst System Possible'

A compromise measure introduced by the Clinton administration in 1993, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" allows gays and lesbians to serve in the armed forces as long as they abstain from homosexual activity and do not disclose their sexual orientation.

Before it was enacted in 1994, there had been a blanket ban on all homosexuals in the military.

For years, the policy has drawn the ire of both conservatives and liberals.

Even supporters have acknowledged its shortcomings.

"It's like what [Winston] Churchill said about democracy: 'It's the worst system possible, except for all the other ones,'" said Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University who helped draft the policy and coined the phrase "Don't ask, don't tell."

Since then, the federal government estimates that more than 10,000 soldiers, sailors and Marines have been discharged because of their sexual orientation.

The Pentagon reports there were 726 service members discharged in 2005, up 11 percent from the year before.

In 2005, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, put the cost of enforcing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" from 1994 to 2003 at $190.5 million.

The GAO reported that the federal government had spent $95.4 million to recruit and $95.1 million to train replacements.

A subsequent University of California-Santa Barbara report -- drafted by former Defense Secretary William Perry, and 11 professors and experts -- nearly doubled that estimate to $364 million after taking into account lost value from the departures from the military.

Time for Change?

The Bush administration has not wavered in its support for "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

With the war in Iraq hampering recruitment efforts, critics of the policy see a ripe opportunity for change.

"It's going to be overturned because people are needed, and it's not going to matter who they're sleeping with," said Elizabeth Recupero, a doctor discharged under the policy last year.

"We're in a situation of high alert and war."

A Pew Research poll conducted earlier this year indicates six in 10 Americans now support allowing gays to serve openly in the military, compared to 44 percent in 1993.

Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., has proposed legislation that would repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," though it's unclear whether there's enough support on Capitol Hill to approve such a measure.

Some observers say the military quite simply is not ready for a shift in policy.

"There are few situations in life where you're forced to live in intimate circumstances not of your choosing," Moskos said.

"It just won't work. You will find people who feel their privacy rights are being violated. The gay advocates say it will cause enlistment to go up, but I think you'd find it dropping rather than rising."

As for Justin Hager, his failed enlistment has only strengthened his desire to serve his country.

Hager, a political science and history major, plans to seek a career in politics after graduation and hopes one day to be a U.S. senator.

"I want to be a great American," Hager said. "I want to be able to repay the debt to those who fought before us."