Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Don't Ask. Just Tell.

Two great civil rights precedents have been set in the United States military: Truman ended segregation in the armed forces in 1948 and military service was opened to women in 1976. No surveys were sent out.

In other words, the government didn’t ask. They told.

Fast forward to July 7, 2010: 400,000 active duty and reserve troops receive surveys to assess the attitudes of forces and the potential problems of allowing openly gay members to serve in the military.

Policy seems to have shifted.

Instead of telling or ordering armed forces to comply with change as they had done so in the two previous occasions, the government now sees it necessary to ask service members how they feel about the topic.

On September 23rd Republicans blocked repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy” noting that that they would like to see the results of the military’s survey before definitively making a decision to abolish the policy. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, advocated repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy back in February. However he cautioned that Congress should wait for the Pentagon to “crunch the data” from the survey before it acts to repeal the policy.

With the repeal of the military’s ban on homosexuals serving openly, a third potentially great moment in civil rights history regarding the armed forces may be here, but will this crunching of the data be an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” or a revival of it?

The 32 page survey was sent out via e-mail and included over 100 questions. Recipients had until August 15th to complete the lengthy questionnaire. According to the Pentagon, there was a 27.5 % response rate meaning that only 109,883 of the 400,000 surveys were received. A final report of the findings is due December 1st to President Obama, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, and other top military officials.

The survey was created by Rockville, Maryland based research company, Westat. In using an outside contactor the Pentagon hopes to maintain confidentiality and privacy. What they are implying is that this survey is not a Catch-22 that seeks to expose and punish homosexuals in the military. By answering questions openly and honestly troops can inadvertently identify themselves or members of their unit which violates the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. Through the contract with Westat, the Pentagon is getting around this potential Catch-22. So far no one has been discharged.

The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’’ policy was put in place 17 years ago and since that time the policy has resulted in nearly 13,000 service members being discharged because of their sexual preferences.

The Department of Defense intended to keep the contents of the survey under wraps but two days after its private release a California based gay and lesbian advocacy group, The Palm Center got a hold of a copy and distributed it to the media.

A major aspect of the survey that became immediately apparent is the fact that it avoids the question of whether or not the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy should be repealed. The survey has drawn sharp criticism.

Servicemembers United, a group that advocates for the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy has created a website in response to the survey. On their site SurveyRefund.org the groups refers to the language of the survey as “biased” and even “insulting” noting that such a survey is “unprecedented” in history. Servicemembers United is demanding that the Department of Defense refund the $4.4 million of taxpayer money that was spent on the survey.

At a recent meeting of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, General James Amos and Republican Senator John McCain discussed the survey. Amos primary concern with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is “the potential disruption to cohesion” in the armed forces. He also noted that a change in policy would be “a distraction to Marines who are tightly focused at this point on combat operations in Afghanistan.”

Coincidentally the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” survey seeks to find out or assess the concerns that Gen. Amos and Sen. McCain discussed at the Senate Armed Forces Committee meeting. Other areas of concern that the survey is hoping to uncover are housing issues, spousal benefits, and possible changes that may be needed in military recruiting. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates said that “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.”

It seems that that the military and the Pentagon have become quite sensitive in regard to this topic. Previously the military had not been so meticulous in trying to understand potential issues that might arise from change. They told the troops how things were going to be and the military simply followed orders. What is so different about repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?”

Gen. Amos asserted in the Senate Armed Forces Committee meeting that any new policy in the military would be backed by strong leadership and discipline and that “If the law is changed... the Marine Corps will.”

So now we must ask, why has $4.4 million of hard earned taxpayer’s money been spent on a controversial survey that will likely come up with little solid evidence as to why the policy should or should not be repealed?

Military service has become a job for some and a career for many more. Homosexuality is not an issue in the American workplace therefore it should not be one for our service members. We might look at the low response rate of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” survey as a means of signifying that the times have changed. Many did not fill out the survey because they simply don’t care if the policy is repealed. Nothing will change. Soldiers in the military have become co-workers. In this military workplace the only thing that really matters is if another soldier can do his or her job.

Most importantly we must also try to understand why there has been an apparent and needless shift in the military’s civil rights policy. Shouldn’t the military just be told what to do rather than asked?

Simply put: give orders, and the military will follow.

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