Sunday, March 14, 2010

Divided emotions, opinions on 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy

By John Lantigua, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010

LAKE WORTH — In February, Isabel, a specialist with the 482nd Air Force Reserve, based in Homestead, was due to be deployed to Iraq.

Her life partner, Nicole, a civilian, was worried and not only about Isabel's safety.

"I said to myself, 'If something happens to her, will they even contact me?' " Nicole said. "My name is there to call in case of emergency, but I am not legally her family."

Isabel's deployment was eventually canceled, but she is still concerned.

"Nicole is not eligible for any of the benefits that spouses are entitled to," said Isabel, 26. "Married soldiers get more money when they are mobilized and the military also provides health, educational, housing benefits for your spouse. I am serving my country and this is very unfair."

The young woman is not really named Isabel. She uses a false name so as not to violate the current military policy regarding gay and lesbian soldiers. "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" championed by President Bill Clinton prohibits homosexual soldiers from identifying themselves as such, but also enjoins the military from asking them about their sexual orientation.

Adopted in 1993 it was seen as a middle ground between the previous policy that banned gays from the military altogether, and outright acceptance of homosexuals in the services.

Now the Obama administration wants the policy scrapped and for gays to serve openly. The ensuing debate has provoked strong opinions on both sides.

Suspicion can lead to investigation

Both active and former members of the military who are gay or lesbian, and who were interviewed for this article, all favor the eventual changing of the policy and say homosexuals should serve without hiding who they are.

Philippe Kalmanson, 40, of Lake Worth, wishes the change had come years ago, before anti-gay policies cost him his military career. He served almost four years in the Air Force and two in the Army. His release papers reflect an honorable discharge, various service ribbons and commendations, including the good conduct medal. But his last days in uniform, in 1991, weren't pleasant.

Kalmanson, a specialist with administrative duties, had recently returned from service in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War, when he was summoned to an interview by military criminal investigators at Fort Bragg, N.C..

He had no idea why.

"It turned out that a military friend of mine based in South Carolina was being investigated for drug use," said Kalmanson. "They searched his room and found letters I had written to him from Saudi."

The men had met while serving in Korea two years before. The letters indicated they had been lovers.

According to an investigator's report, Kalmanson was detained for at least five hours.

The transcript of the interrogation details every cigarette, cup of coffee and Dr Pepper. Kalmanson confessed to the affair and was drummed out of the Army.

He says he met many gay men in the military, but any social activity among them was always away from their work and their military posts.

"You don't go into the military so you can be checking out guys in the shower," Kalmanson says. "It isn't like that."

The "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" policy would have probably saved his career, but he believes the military should go farther, especially given the need for manpower.

"Changing the policy wouldn't make much a difference," he says. "People gossip about who is gay anyway. And right now they need the bodies."

Stephanie, 31, of West Palm Beach, is gay and served in the Navy from 2000 to 2007, including almost two years at sea. She left as a lieutenant.

She says gay sailors sometimes revealed their sexual orientation, but rarely.

"You would stand watch at night on the bridge and you had time to talk," she says. "You had to know who to trust. It could be used against you, you could be discharged and lose all your benefits."

She said straight sailors gossiped about who might be gay "but there was never any kind of hate in it. Men and women who were thought to be gay weren't reviled by their shipmates."

She thinks most in the ranks would accept a change in policy, but officers at the top are conservative and will be harder to convince.

"And Obama needs to keep the military leaders happy right now given Iraq and Afghanistan," she says. "It will take time."

Among straight members of the military family, opinions are much more divided.

'This is a civil rights issue'

Ben Lubin, son of West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel, who served as a Marine captain in Iraq and Afghanistan, is straight and favors changing the policy immediately.

"Gay and lesbian people have fought and died for this country in wars all through our history," he said. "This is a civil rights issue. Women and blacks are allowed to serve today and they weren't at one time. Some day people will look back and say how could those people have embraced that policy. It's unjust."

Lubin said he believes many in the ranks wouldn't care, although he admits for some it will be a very contentious issue.

"But it's not up to them," he said. "Policy is made by elected officials and changing the policy is the right thing to do."

But Karl, 52, of Boca Raton, an Army National Guard sergeant who has served twice in Afghanistan, believes any change would have to be accomplished gradually, and possibly not at all. Karl is an assumed name because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

"I was raised in New York, was exposed to many different lifestyles, and it doesn't matter to me," he said. "But I've heard a lot of discussion and a lot of people in the ranks are against changing the policy."

He said many soldiers come from the more conservative parts of the country and are not sympathetic to gay rights.

"In some cases they have religious beliefs that cause them to have those positions," he said. "You also have these 'A type' personalities who are very against it. I guess you'd call them homophobic. The gay person won't be treated equally. Some of these guys just won't accept it."

That was once said about blacks. They were formally integrated into the military in 1948, when the U.S. wasn't at war.

Karl worries it will be harder for gays, and especailly now in wartime.

"In combat I need everybody focused on the same battle scheme," he said. "I need everybody working as a unit and gay soldiers serving openly could affect that. I don't believe women should serve in combat for that reason. Male soldiers tend to be overly protective of female soldiers and those males don't do what they are supposed to do.

"The dynamic would be different with gay soldiers but it could be a distraction," he said. "To make it work you would have to do a lot of education first. Maybe it would work in time. Maybe. For that reason I don't think it will pass now."

Karl said he is sympathetic to an immediate change to give everyone the same benefits. He said that question could be handled administratively so that no one in the field would have to know.

"Yes, I agree that's the fair thing and there should be a way to do it now," he said.

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