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'Don't ask' foes press for repeal

Emphasize military woes in recruiting

NEW YORK -- Critics of the military's ''don't ask, don't tell" policy are gaining new allies, including a few conservative members of Congress and a West Point professor, as they press on multiple fronts to overturn the ban on out-of-the-closet gays and lesbians in the armed forces.

As part of their strategy, opponents of the policy are now highlighting the ongoing struggles of Army and Marine recruiters.

The Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, or SLDN, said in a report that many highly trained specialists, including combat engineers and linguists, are being discharged involuntarily while the Pentagon ''is facing extreme challenges in recruiting and retaining troops."

On other fronts:

A federal court hearing is scheduled in Boston next month on a lawsuit by 12 former service members challenging the 12-year-old policy.

In Congress, four Republicans -- including conservatives Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida -- have joined 81 Democrats cosponsoring a bill to repeal the policy. Gilchrest, a former supporter of the ban, said he changed his view partly out of respect for gay Marines he served with in Vietnam and for his brother, who is gay.

A US Military Academy professor, Lieutenant Colonel Allen Bishop, wrote a column this spring in Army Times urging Congress to repeal the ban. ''I thought I'd get lots of hate mail, and my colleagues would walk on the other side of the hall -- but there's been none of that," he said yesterday.

Still, the White House and the Pentagon have given no signals that they would drop their longstanding support for the policy, implemented in 1993 under the Clinton administration. It prohibits the military from inquiring about the sex lives of service members but requires discharge of those who acknowledge being gay.

On July 6, the Bush administration plans to ask a federal court in Boston to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the policy.

The lawsuit, filed by SLDN, cites a 2003 Supreme Court ruling that states laws criminalizing homosexual sex were unconstitutional. The government says the landmark decision has no bearing on ''don't ask, don't tell."

One of the plaintiffs in the Boston case is Dr. Laura Galaburda of Jamaica Plain, who said she was forced to leave the Air Force prematurely in 2002 because she no longer wished to keep her sexual orientation secret.

''The more I saw patients, the more interaction I had with them, the more I came to realize that it wasn't going to work for me to remain in the closet," she said in an interview last year.

A Pentagon spokeswoman, Lieutenant Colonel Ellen Krenke, said dismissals under the policy are only a small fraction of overall military discharges. She added that the Defense Department could change the policy only if Congress acted first.

More than 9,400 troops have been discharged since the policy was implemented. Discharges peaked at 1,227 in 2001 and declined to 653 last year, a drop critics attribute to reluctance by war-zone commanders to deprive their units of experienced personnel during difficult missions.

''The services are far less likely to discharge gays and lesbians serving on the front lines," Servicemembers Legal Defense Network said in its report, released Monday.

But the group contends that the armed forces are losing crucial specialists because of the policy. It said those discharged last year included 41 healthcare professionals, 30 sonar and radar specialists, 20 combat engineers, 17 law enforcement agents, nine language specialists, and seven biological/chemical warfare specialists.

''The military continues to sacrifice national security and military readiness in favor of simple prejudice," said C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of SLDN. ''Americans do not care if the helicopter pilot rescuing a wounded soldier or the medic treating that soldier is gay."

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