Military Gay Policy Defended

W A S H I N G T O N, July 21, 2000 -- The military’s much-criticized policy on homosexuals in uniform is working, but training must be improved to eliminate anti-gay behavior like the abuse that led to a soldier’s murder in Kentucky last year, the Defense Department said today.

“We think we’ve got it right this time,” Undersecretary of Defense Bernard Rostker said at a news conference to publicize a new departmental program to re-emphasize in training that such behavior is unacceptable.

Rostker said he disagreed with President Clinton’s statement last year, after the beating death of Pfc. Barry Winchell by a fellow soldier at Fort Campbell, Ky., that implementation of his policy on gays was “out of whack.”

“I don’t agree with that characterization. I think the policy is working reasonably well to provide a degree of safety” for gays in uniform, Rostker said. “The days of witch hunts, the days of stakeouts, are really gone.”

‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Not Enough’ Even so, Rostker said, more needs to be done to ensure that everyone in the military understands the policy.

The Clinton administration’s policy on gays in the military is derived from a law passed in 1993 after Clinton failed to persuade Congress and the Pentagon to allow gays to serve openly. The policy, known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” holds that gays can serve in uniform so long as they don’t reveal their sexual orientation. One problem, however, has been unwarranted investigations of people suspected of being homosexual. There also is a fear among discreetly gay service members that if they complain about harassment, they will be discharged.

Today’s announced plan to eliminate anti-gay behavior was created by a panel of civilian and military officials led by Carol DiBattiste, the undersecretary of the Air Force. It was in response to a Pentagon inspector general’s report in March that found anti-gay behavior was commonplace in the military.

DiBattiste said the key to her panel’s plan is adoption of an “overarching principle” meant to clarify to all in the military that unacceptable behavior includes not just abuse of gays but also “inappropriate comments or gestures.”

“That’s the high road that we need to take,” she said.

Enforcing Protection The DiBattiste panel’s 13-point “action plan” is largely a reiteration of previous expressions of determination to stamp out anti-gay behavior and to hold military commanders responsible for policy infractions.

Last December, Rostker’s predecessor in the undersecretary’s post, Rudy de Leon, issued a statement that “harassment of service members for any reason, to include alleged or perceived homosexuality, will not be tolerated,” and commanders must take prompt action against violators.

Michelle Benecke, an executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Fund, an advocate for gay rights in the military and a frequent critic of Pentagon policy, called the DiBattiste panel’s report “thoughtful and considered.”

“Today’s recommendations, if implemented, would be a very good start,” Benecke said.

Winchell Commanders Exonerated The spark that caused the Pentagon to take a closer look at the gay policy’s implementation, and at the extent of anti-gay behavior in the field, was the Winchell murder at Fort Campbell on July 5, 1999. Two of Winchell’s fellow soldiers were convicted in the crime and are in prison.

Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, released the Army inspector general’s report today on circumstances surrounding the Winchell murder. The report concluded that some members of D Company, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, Winchell’s unit in the 101st Airborne Division, violated the military’s policy against anti-gay behavior, but it exonerated all commanders at Fort Campbell.

The Army report also concluded no general climate of homophobia existed at Fort Campbell.

With some exceptions, “It was determined that the command climate at Fort Campbell before 5 July 1999 was a positive environment,” the inspector general’s report said. It also said the chain of command at Fort Campbell “responded appropriately” when confronted with situations that appeared to violate the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., questioned these conclusions.

“Giving Fort Campbell a relatively clean bill of health doesn’t square with recent reports of prevalent anti-gay harassment throughout the services,” Meehan said.