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Don't ask, don't translate

Imagine an American soldier deep in the Iraqi desert. His unit is about to head out when he receives a cable detailing an insurgent ambush in his convoy's path. With this information, he and his soldiers are now prepared for the danger that lies ahead.

Such reports are regularly sent from military translators' desks, providing critical, often-lifesaving intelligence to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the military has a desperate shortage of linguists trained to translate such invaluable information.

The lack of qualified translators has been a pressing issue; the Army had filled only half its authorized positions for Arabic translators in 2001. Cables went un-translated on Sept. 10 that might have prevented the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

I was an Arabic translator. After joining the Navy in 2003, I attended the Defense Language Institute, graduated in the top 10 percent and spent two years giving troops the translation services they desperately needed. I was ready to serve in Iraq.

But I never got to. In March, I was ousted from the Navy under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, which mandates dismissal if a service member is found to be gay.

Almost a year ago, my roommate, also gay, was deployed to Fallujah. We communicated the only way we could: using the military's instant-messaging system. These electronic conversations are lifelines, keeping soldiers sane.

Last October, the annual inspection of my base, Fort Gordon, Ga., included the computer chat system. Inspectors identified 70 people whose use violated policy. Among those charged were my former roommate and me. Our messages included references to our social lives comments that were unremarkable, except that they indicated we were gay.

I could have written a statement denying I was homosexual, but lying did not seem right. My roommate made the same decision, though he was allowed to remain in Iraq until the scheduled end of his tour.

The result was termination of our careers, and the loss of two more Arabic translators. The 68 other heterosexual service members flagged in the inspection remained on active duty despite many having committed more egregious violations; the Pentagon apparently doesn't consider hate speech, derogatory comments about women or sexual misconduct grounds for dismissal.

My supervisors did not want to lose me. Most peers knew I was gay, and that didn't bother them. I was always accepted as a member of the team. And my experience was not anomalous: Polls of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan show an overwhelming majority are comfortable with gays. Many were aware of at least one gay person in their unit and had no problem with it.

"Don't ask, don't tell" deprives the military of talent it needs and invades the privacy of gay service members just trying to do their jobs and live their lives. Political and military leaders may believe homosexual soldiers threaten cohesion and readiness, but the real damage is caused by denying enlistment to patriotic Americans and wrenching qualified individuals out of effective military units. This does not serve the military or the nation well.

Consider: About 60 Arabic linguists have been kicked out since "don't ask, don't tell" was instituted. How much valuable intelligence could those men and women be providing today to troops in harm's way? About 11,000 other service members have been ousted since 1993. Many held critical jobs in intelligence, medicine and counterterrorism. An untold number of closeted gay military members don't re-enlist. This is the real cost of the ban, with our military so overcommitted and undermanned.

Today, the Army is lengthening deployments from 12 to 15 months, enlisting felons and extending the age limit to 42. Why then won't Congress pass a bill like the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would repeal "don't ask, don't tell"? The bipartisan bill, by some estimates, could add more than 41,000 soldiers all gay, of course.

As the friends I once served with head off to 15-month deployments, I regret I'm not there to lessen their burden and serve my country. I'm trained to fight, I speak Arabic and I'm willing to serve. No recruiter needs to make a persuasive argument to sign me up.

I'm ready, and I'm waiting.

Stephen Benjamin is a former petty officer second class in the Navy. His essay first appeared in the New York Times.

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