Troops to weigh in on ‘don’t ask’ policy

Restriction makes interviews tricky

NOT A SHORTCUT 'This survey should not be a substitute for making a decision to repeal the policy,' said Representative Barney Frank. NOT A SHORTCUT
"This survey should not be a substitute for making a decision to repeal the policy," said Representative Barney Frank.
By Bryan Bender
Globe Staff / May 20, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Pentagon officials studying ways to permit gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military are in a quandary: They want to gather the unique insights and attitudes of homosexuals in uniform, but to identify and interview gay troops would, under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’’ policy, mean that disciplinary action would have to be brought against them.

Since 1993, the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’’ policy has resulted in an estimated 13,000 service members being discharged because of their sexual preference.

In an effort to get around the interview catch-22, the Defense Department authorized the hiring this week of an outside contractor to confidentially gather the views of troops and their families, several Pentagon officials privy to the deliberations said.

The contractor, Westat, a Maryland research firm with experience surveying military communities, will gather information from 350,000 troops and their families, including from homosexual service members. The company will use that data to assess the possible impact of a change in policy on military effectiveness and identify possible changes needed in military recruiting, housing, spousal benefits, and other areas, according to the officials.

The survey comes at a crucial point in consideration of whether to enact President Obama’s stated desire to end the so-called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’’ policy 17 years after it was put in place. Criticism of the Pentagon review is growing on Capitol Hill, where some leading Democrats say they will push for repeal of the law in the coming weeks despite a plea from Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates to wait until the Pentagon review is completed by Dec. 1.

“This survey should not be a substitute for making a decision to repeal the policy,’’ said Representative Barney Frank , a Massachusetts Democrat who has expressed concern that the Pentagon review will be used as an excuse to delay action on overturning the gay ban.

Obama, in his State of the Union address, urged Congress to repeal the ban. But before changing the law the Pentagon said it needs to determine how it would go about making such a dramatic personnel change, which some compare to the effort to integrate blacks into the armed forces in 1948. Gates in March announced the creation of the so-called Pentagon Working Group to determine “how best to implement a repeal of this law.’’

“To be successful, we must understand all the issues and potential impacts associated with repeal of the law and how to manage the implementation in a way that minimizes disruption,’’ Gates wrote.

The review panel, headed by a four-star general and the Pentagon’s top lawyer, will examine whether changes have to be made to the Uniform Code of Military Justice to ensure that gay troops would not be discriminated against, as well as whether the partners of gay or lesbian troops would be eligible for family benefits such as health care. The panel’s work was described by two Pentagon officials who are involved in the effort and spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about internal deliberations.

The panel’s first priority is to gather the views of troops of all ranks, including officer and enlisted personnel, young and old, married and unmarried, and those serving in different types of units, from combat to medicine.

The panel has already held a series of closed-door forums with troops around the country, including one at the Pentagon and at several bases. At the outset, according to the two Pentagon officials who have participated in the forums, troops are asked whether they know of anyone in their unit who is gay or lesbian. A large share of participants have raised their hands, the officials said.

When then asked whether they believe having those troops in their unit has harmed its ability to function effectively, far fewer raise their hands, the officials said.

The most common concerns that troops have raised, however, have been about privacy in the barracks and that openly gay service would conflict with their religious views, the officials said.

In these initial sessions, participants have also been informed at the outset that they should not reveal whether they are gay or lesbian, reflecting one of the key challenges the assessment group has encountered.

“We warned them about this,’’ Aubry Sarvis , executive director of the Servicemembers’ Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit organization that represents troops who have been discharged under the current policy, said of the challenge in gathering the views of troops at all levels, particularly gays and lesbians. “It remains a challenge they haven’t figured out how to address.’’

That is why the survey team is now looking to Westat for help.

The company did not return calls for comment. One of the Pentagon officials said that Westat, operating under a $4.4 million contract, will “develop, administer, and analyze’’ the survey results and will also help organize additional forums and group discussions, with a premium placed on confidentiality.

But Sarvis and others who support lifting the ban said they remain concerned that even with a private contractor doing the surveying, gay and lesbian troops — and possibly others — will still have reservations about speaking freely about the subject out of concern their comments could be shared with fellow troops or commanders. Sarvis’s group has said the review is unnecessary in the first place.

At the same time, those who oppose the service of openly gay troops worry that the survey will avoid asking what they consider to be the right questions, such as whether the troops support changing the law in the first place.

“Our frustration with this working group is its charge to come up with a plan [for implementing a change in the law] rather than studying whether repeal is a good idea,’’ said Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank. “They are asking the wrong questions.’’

Bryan Bender can be reached at