The number of U.S. soldiers discharged because they are gay or lesbian dropped for the third year in a row in 2004. In fact, the number of gays who are being kicked out is more than 50 percent lower than it was pre-9/11.
The possible correlation is not lost on Steve Ralls, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
"It's good to see numbers go down," Ralls said. "But the reason for it going down isn't good. We are in the midst of two wars -- three if you count the war on terror. Obviously, there is a severe shortage of troops and they can't afford to lose them."
At issue is former President Clinton's controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy from the early 1990s that allows soldiers to serve as long as they don't disclose their sexual orientation. The government must track the number of soldiers who have been discharged because of their sexual orientation. Nationwide, 653 service members were ejected last year because they openly admitted they are gay, lesbian or bisexual, participated in behavior considered homosexual, or married someone of the same gender. That compares with 1,227 dismissals in 2001.
In the years since, the military has faced a shortage of soldiers and has ordered extended tours of duty, while intensifying recruiting efforts.
Four at Fort Carson
At Fort Carson, Colorado Springs' largest military installation, four soldiers were dismissed in 2004 -- the first to occur since 2002, when 19 soldiers were expelled because of their sexual orientation.
Describing the matter as an Army-wide issue, a Fort Carson spokesman referred questions to Pamela Hart, an Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon. Hart said she is unsure what is driving the trend for fewer discharges.
"It would only be speculative," she said of suggestions that the military is not cracking down on gays because the nation is at war. The Army, Hart said, hasn't studied the issue.
Colorado Springs' two Air Force bases-- Peterson and Schriever -- reported no discharges for sexual orientation in 2004. The last time a soldier was kicked out under the policy at Peterson was in 2000. Complete records for prior years at Schriever were unavailable at press time.
The Air Force Academy, also in Colorado Springs, dismissed no cadets in the last decade because of the policy, said Tech. Sgt. Dean Miller, an academy spokesman. No active-duty personnel at the Academy were ejected in 2004.
War and peace
According to a study released last week by the General Accounting Office, Clinton's policy -- enacted shortly after he took office in 1992 -- has cost taxpayers at least $191 million.
The tab includes the amount the military has spent recruiting and training replacements for the 9,488 gay, lesbian or bisexual soldiers dismissed between 1994 and 2003. Among them were roughly 800 specialists, including intelligence analysts. There were also 322 soldiers skilled in foreign languages, soldiers with the kind of experience the military says it needs to break communication barriers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea.
"We do need language skills, but not at the sake of violating a conduct policy," Hart countered.
Ralls, of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said he wasn't surprised by the GAO's report. He used it as ammunition to draw attention to legislation introduced earlier this week by Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., aiming to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."
"Members of Congress for the first time in 10 years are saying enough is enough," Ralls said, noting the bill's obvious long-term implications. "If gays and lesbians are good enough to serve in a time of war, they should certainly serve in times of peace as well."
Other militaries have recently overturned rules preventing gays from serving in the military. Britain, for example, ended its ban against gays in 2000, following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that concluded the nation's military policy an intrusion on privacy.
Up to 30 co-sponsors are expected to join Meehan's bill. Their names were not available as of press time.