Feb. 25, 2007 — -- Air Force Staff Sgt. David Hall was a decorated officer, had been given a much-coveted opportunity to train be a pilot, and in 2002 had earned the highest ranking of all the Air Force ROTC juniors in his detachment. Hall to this day is eager to fly missions in Iraq.
But Hall won't be sent to the Middle East any time soon, because in August 2002 the Air Force discharged him because he's gay.
"To have that taken away from me -- it was devastating," Hall told ABC News today.
Hall is one of more than 11,000 gay and lesbian service members discharged under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy enacted in 1993. On March 7, the 1st Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals will hear the court case that Hall and 11 other gay and lesbian service members have filed -- working with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network -- against the Pentagon seeking reinstatement.
But before that, on Wednesday, a bipartisan group of congressmen led by Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., will introduce legislation to overturn the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the armed forces, a ban that many Democrats now mock.
"For some reason, the military seems more afraid of gay people than they are against terrorists," said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., at a House International Relations Committee hearing earlier this month. "If the terrorists ever got a hold of this information, they'd get a platoon of lesbians to chase us out of Baghdad."
But beyond such snipes is a serious debate. Congress will take up a policy this week that forces able troops out when the military is stretched so thin it has lowered its enlistment standards for age, education and even criminal history.
Beyond "culture war" divides about gay and lesbian rights, this debate now takes on national security implications, as President Bush seeks to enlarge the size of the armed forces, and the war against terrorism looms large and continues to pose serious challenges.
A 2004 study conducted by the Government Accountability Office, for instance, found that eight percent of discharged gay soldiers "held critical occupations," including 322 with "skills in an important language such as Arabic, Farsi or Korean."
"It doesn't make sense for the Pentagon to kick people out when they need people," Hall said. "That they're going to say, 'I would rather have people who have criminal behaviors serve rather than someone who has already served honorably' -- that makes no sense."
Public opinion on the topic has shifted. According to an ABC News poll in 1993, only 44 percent of the American people supported letting gays and lesbian troops serve openly. But by 2004, according to a Gallup poll, 63 percent supported gay people serving openly in the military.
"They're watching Ellen DeGeneres on TV, or they're knowing someone who is a self-identified homosexual," said retired Col. Bob Maginnis. "That's understandable in a cultural context."
Despite that social acceptance, Maginnis said changes in the civilian culture are not relevant to the field of battle.
"Really, the bottom line for the military is: Is this a policy change that's going to help promote combat effectiveness?" Maginnis said. "I see no evidence of that."
And what about the ousted gay and lesbian soldiers with critical language skills?
"We come to the conclusion that if we embrace homosexuality in the military, that that has far more of a detrimental impact than will, in fact, keeping someone just because they happen to have a critical skill," said Maginnis.