"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Don't Work

Early in his first term, Bill Clinton claimed one of his first priorities as chief executive would be to abolish discrimination against homosexuals serving in the U.S. armed forces. After that announcement, the president basked in the praise of liberals and the gay and lesbian community, and ducked brickbats from military hard-liners and religious conservatives.Stung by the assault from the right, Clinton backed down from an outright ban on discrimination, and substituted his policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue." Issued as Department of Defense Directive [1332.30] in February 1994, the policy orders military commanders and recruiters to refrain from asking questions about a soldier's sexual orientation. Gays in the military would not be subject to inquiry and discharge, as they were under the previous policy, unless they openly engaged in, or demonstrated through language or behavior, a propensity to engage in homosexual conduct while in the service.Outcries of betrayal from gays and lesbians subsided into grudging acceptance of the new guidelines. That the directive states investigations of alleged homosexuals, "requires a determination based on arguable facts, not just a belief or suspicion," was seen as a baby step forward.But the outcries are sounding anew, with the release of the third annual report on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network. Titled Conduct Unbecoming, the report states that not only has the president's policy not been observed, it has been blatantly violated by military brass.SLDN statistics show that in 1996 there were 850 military discharges on grounds of homosexuality -- the highest rate of such discharges since 1987. More than half of the investigations leading to those discharges, the report states, were direct contraventions of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." And of 256 such cases nation-wide which involved the SLDN, 10 percent took place at Texas military bases."It's quite a violation of law," says Dan Castor of San Antonio's Equal Rights Political Caucus. "The Pentagon's own studies have shown that the gay and lesbian soldiers aren't the problem. They serve well, they earn citation after citation. The bigots in the military are the problem."Debra Meeks was very nearly the victim of such bigotry. Beginning in September 1994, Meeks was the subject of an investigation by the Lackland Air Force Base Office of Special Investigations on a charge of "communicating a threat." That charge was brought to OSI by Pamela Dillard, a civilian who claimed she once had a relationship with Meeks, and who alleged Meeks pointed a handgun at her in the course of an argument after the relationship ended.The investigation into Dillard's charges proved inconclusive, and OSI closed the case. In June 1995, Meeks proceeded with her plan for early retirement, which was approved for November. But while making arrangements to leave the Air Force after 21 years of service, Meeks was unaware that her case was far from over."The package [of information on the investigation] went all the way to the Second Air Force Commander," says Meeks, "who at that time was Major General Henry Hobgood at Keesler AFB in Mississippi." Hobgood, now retired, had been commander of the 37th training wing at Lackland before assuming his 2AF command a year earlier.Hobgood countermanded Meeks' retirement date and directed OSI to reopen her case. At his order, the investigation was expanded to include questions regarding Meeks' sexual conduct.Though Meeks says OSI didn't ask her specific questions about her sexual preference in its second investigation, "They got around that by asking associates of mine -- friends, anyone they could come in contact with that would talk to them," all in violation of "don't pursue."On August 12, 1996, Major Debra Meeks was court-martialed for violation of Article 125, consensual sodomy. In addition, Air Force prosecutors tacked on a charge of violating Article 133, conduct unbecoming an officer, for the alleged handgun incident which it had previously dismissed. If found guilty, Meeks could have been dishonorably discharged and imprisoned for eight years.The importance of the "not-guilty" verdict rendered by a seven-member court-martial panel should not be ignored, says Castor: "She fought it and won -- one of the very few victories in cases like this. A jury of her peers -- a military jury -- refused to convict her. It's one of the first such verdicts, and it's very powerful."But Meeks' success in fighting the charges against her eventually overshadowed the methods by which those charges were investigated. She asserts that, with the implementation of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," standard operating procedure in the military is now to question associates of suspected gays and lesbians."They're taking the policy as if it's OK as long as they don't ask the individual," says Meeks. "Well, before, they didn't ask the individual because the individual had a right not to say anything if they chose not to. But they're going out and asking other service members and members of the community."They [investigators] go so far as to threaten people, even civilians in the community," Meeks charges. "They say, ÔIf you don't help us, we can subpoena you, or your employer might find out.'" She says that this has been communicated to her by military personnel who have been or are currently involved in investigations similar to her own."They ignore the policy," Meeks says angrily. "They go out and ask questions and start pursuing." And, as in her case, those questions are not necessarily based on a relevant charge, she says: "They find some other means, whatever means that they can -- some other trumped-up, frivolous allegation -- to go out and pursue. They're snubbing their nose at President Clinton."And Meeks says that such pursuits have increased -- a contention born out by the SLDN report, which states the number of servicemembers asked, pursued, and ultimately discharged has increased each year since the adoption of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." The number of discharges for 1996 is 18 percent higher than the year before, and 42 percent higher than 1994."In a time of cutbacks in personnel and resources," Meeks asks, "why is our government spending so much time investigating consensual sexual activities amongst its members, and why are they investing so much time and money and resources in the privacy of people's own sexual conduct? Do they really not have anything better to do right now?"Meeks retired late last year with full pension and benefits, and today she works as a sales consultant. "I like being out in the community, and I like being a part of things," she says. "People out there really don't seem to care what you are."But her memories of 21 years of military life were obviously soured by her ordeal -- she refuses to use the title "Major.""I thought we had a military to protect and defend our rights," Meeks says. "What I've found, and what I'm seeing, is that if you're a member of the military, you have no rights."

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