Gay soldier challenges ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

An Army sergeant who was wounded in Iraq wants a chance to remain in the military as an openly gay soldier, a desire that’s bringing him into conflict with the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Sgt. Robert Stout, 23, says he has not encountered trouble from fellow soldiers and would like to stay if not for the policy that permits gay men and women to serve only if they keep their sexual orientation a secret.

“I know a ton of gay men that would be more than willing to stay in the Army if they could just be open,” Stout said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But if we have to stay here and hide our lives all the time, it’s just not worth it.”

Stout, of Utica, Ohio, was awarded the Purple Heart after a grenade sent pieces of shrapnel into his arm, face and legs while he was operating a machine gun on an armored Humvee last May.

He is believed to be the first gay soldier wounded in Iraq to publicly discuss his sexuality, said Aaron Belkin, director of the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

“We can’t keep hiding the fact that there’s gay people in the military and they aren’t causing any harm,” said Stout, who says he is openly gay among most of his 26-member platoon, which is part of the 9th Engineer Battalion based in Schweinfurt, Germany.

Stout, who served in Iraq for more than a year as a combat engineer, said by acknowledging he is gay, he could be jailed and probably will be discharged before his scheduled release date of May 31.

“The old armchair thought that gay people destroy unit camaraderie and cohesion is just wrong,” Stout said. “They said the same things when they tried to integrate African-Americans and women into the military.”

Before the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, enacted in 1993 under the Clinton administration, the Pentagon had explicitly barred gays from military service. At least 24 countries, including Great Britain, Germany, France, Australia, Canada and Israel, allow gays to serve openly.

In an e-mail following the AP interview, Stout said he had been ordered not to speak to the media. “I guess they found out somehow that I was talking to the press and now they are having a fit. I will try to get everything straightened out,” Stout wrote.

Martha Rudd, a spokeswoman for the Army at the Pentagon, said soldiers who are discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell” typically receive honorable discharges, although the timing would be up to the individual’s commanding officer. She declined to comment about Stout, saying the Army doesn’t comment on specific cases.

The issue of whether gays should be allowed to openly serve in the military has received increased attention in recent months as the Army has struggled to meet its recruiting goals. Twelve gays expelled from the military sued the government in December, citing a Supreme Court ruling that declared unconstitutional state laws against homosexual sex.

The Bush administration has asked a federal court to dismiss the lawsuit.

Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey has said he opposes changing the policy, although Pentagon figures show a sharp decline in the number of U.S. military members discharged for making it known they are homosexual, falling from 1,227 in 2001 to 653 last year.

A recent congressional study on the impact of “don’t ask, don’t tell” said that hundreds of highly skilled troops, including many translators, have left the armed forces because of the rule, at a cost of nearly $200 million, mostly for recruiting and training replacements for 9,500 troops discharged between 1994 and 2003.

Gary Gates, a statistician at the University of California at Los Angeles, estimates there are about 65,000 gays and lesbians currently serving in the military, accounting for about 2.8 percent of all personnel. He estimates that at least 25 gay soldiers have been killed in Iraq.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative advocacy group that opposes gays serving in the military, said a better way to avoid the cost of replacing soldiers who are discharged for being gay is to make it very clear to people who enlist in the military, including Stout, that they are ineligible to serve if they are gay.

“I honor and respect his service to this country, but the fact that he’s wounded really doesn’t change the underlying fact. … He is not eligible to serve,” Donnelly said, adding that there are many reasons why people aren’t eligible to serve. “This is just one of them.”

Stout said he suspected while in high school that he was gay but didn’t acknowledge it until later. “Then I noticed that it wasn’t a phase or anything. This is me,” said Stout, who enlisted in the Army after graduating in 2000.

“The ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, when it first came out, was a good stepping stone, but it’s outlived its usefulness,” he said. “We’ve progressed past it both as a military and as a society.”

Recent media polls indicate some increased public acceptance for allowing gays to serve openly in the military, with more than six in 10 Americans supporting the idea while about half supported it a decade ago. An Annenberg poll taken last fall among members of the military showed a majority opposed to such service, though half of junior enlisted personnel said gays should be allowed to serve openly.

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© 2005 The Associated Press