Time to Ban Heterosexual Soldiers?

Originally appeared Jan. 24, 2000 in The Philadelphia Inquirer, and in other papers.

HAS THE TIME COME to ban heterosexuals from the armed forces? Evidence that straight GIs weaken America's defenses continues to accumulate.

Sex between male and female soldiers disrupts numerous military installations. The Army Inspector General reported in July 1997 that leaders at one boot camp "believe it unrealistic" to stop sex between coed recruits thanks to "the chain of command's inability to provide adequate oversight in the barracks, given the high frequency of such incidents." Exasperated, the Army has tried a technical fix. According to the Washington Times' Rowan Scarborough, the Army has installed alarms and surveillance cameras to keep male and female enlistees in their respective quarters.

That often fails. At Fort Bragg alone, the Army Times notes, about 200 unmarried, pregnant soldiers are on base at any given time. According to Penna Dexter of Concerned Women for America, "the Navy now takes it for granted that 10 percent of women will be pregnant when they return from long cruises." In the first 13 months of America's deployment in Bosnia, 118 soldiers got pregnant and were shipped out. Expectant GIs move from bunks and barracks to cozier housing and lighter duties. Then they become single moms, with the attendant consequences for them, their children and taxpayers alike.

These cases involve consensual sex, however misguided. But it's more troubling when military personnel abuse their power to solicit or coerce sex.

Retired Army Major General David Hale was court-martialed and paid a $22,000 fine last March for having improper relationships with the wives of four subordinate officers. He admits to sleeping with two of the women. Three of these couples are now divorced.

According to the Associated Press, seven male and three female sailors engaged in group sex in a Hong Kong hotel room during a July 1998 port visit. The next day, one of the females claimed she had been sexually assaulted. She was punished "based on illicit sexual acts prior to the alleged sexual assault," according to Navy spokesman Lt. Dave Oates. Except for one male, all the sailors were found guilty of adultery, sodomy and fraternization. They saw their ranks cut one grade, pay sliced in half for two months and were restricted for 60 days to the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.

Tailhook and Aberdeen have grown synonymous with sexual harassment. Some male drill sergeants have demanded sex from their female trainees. From 1993 through 1997, the Pentagon cites 3,177 "substantiated complaints" of sexual harassment in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

So does this behavior hinder readiness?

"All these things have had an enormous impact on the general mental and spiritual health of the military," says defense scholar Dr. John Hillen, a former Army captain and Gulf War combat veteran. "The very fact that all these episodes have thrown the armed forces into a state of cultural angst in and of itself affects morale and unit cohesion."

A ban on heterosexuals in uniform is tempting but ultimately unfair. Despite these shocking cases, the overwhelming majority of straights serve with distinction and deserve America's gratitude for defending democracy. Critics should not use the misdeeds of a relative few to tar heterosexuals as a class. Americans understand the importance of judging individuals rather than discriminating against groups.

How about a regulation whereby heterosexuals could serve, if they kept their orientation quiet? Call it "Don't Inquire, Don't Inform." It would be absurd to force heterosexuals to pretend to be what they are not. So long as their sexual behavior remains out of the barracks and off duty, they should - if asked - be truthful about their personal relationships. Discharging a soldier for telling a military chaplain that he and his girlfriend back home are struggling over romantic issues would be nothing less than inhumane. Instead of subterfuge, honesty is the best policy.

Rather than ban heterosexuals or ask them to conceal a key part of their identities, the Pentagon should heed a 1993 report from the hawkish Rand Corporation. It recommended "a policy that focuses on conduct and considers sexual orientation, by itself, as not germane in determining who may serve."

Here is an equal standard for all servicemen, independent of sexuality: Keep your hands on your weapon and you may continue to fight for Old Glory. Place your hands on another GI, and you'll return swiftly to civilian life. Such a crystal-clear rule would be easy to understand, follow and enforce. Adopting such an even-handed policy is the right thing to do. After all, heterosexuals are people, too.

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