Policy on Gays Divides Retired Officers
Some local retired military officers differ sharply on whether a policy that restricts homosexuals in the military should be changed.
In his State of the Union message, President Obama asked Congress to repeal "don't ask, don't tell."
In recent interviews with The Pilot, a retired Special Forces general described the law as morally indefensible, while a retired Navy admiral said he opposes any change because the policy has "worked very well."
Retired Maj. Gen. Sid Shachnow, of Southern Pines, said it's time to get rid of an unjust policy. He said many reasons were used as justifications for barring openly homosexual men and women from military service over the years - reasons that changed with the times, according to Shachnow.
"We used to say, during the Cold War, that it could be used as a blackmailing (threat) - that it could be used as leverage to blackmail and get national security secrets," he said. "Then, when that went by the wayside, we say, 'Well, it's unit cohesion.' We cited the Bible. We were extremely flexible in how we found support for this. As time went on, it became morally very indefensible. It is inevitable that it is going to happen."
Shachnow said he thinks the whole issue is, in one sense, a generational divide. Younger soldiers and officers have no problem with accepting gays, while opposition is coming from people who served in an earlier time, he said.
"My take is, it's a generational issue," Shachnow said. "Most people that feel very strongly about that are people that came in the military in the late '70s,'80s, and before. People that are much younger don't feel as strongly about it. That's one thing. The other thing is that, over time, this issue is more difficult to defend."
The president's speech, and the support from the top brass, has put the question of changing the law before the Congress.
"It is the president that kicked the issue out of the starting gate," Shachnow said. "It would have stayed 'don't ask, don't tell' but President Obama - when he was campaigning - committed himself to this issue.
"Now he recently came out and says he wants to make good on this commitment. I'm sure he feels he's doing the right thing.
"The issue is not whether national security will suffer as a result. If this is going to be reversed, it will have to be done in Congress. Even the president cannot change it on his own."
'Timing Is Very Bad'
The law in question allows a secretary of defense to find that separating homosexuals from the armed services would not be "in the best interests of the nation" and end the policy with such a finding - but that would be an action some later defense secretary could as easily reverse.
"Will Congress change the law or not? I don't even have a clue," Shachnow said. "People know who the gay individuals are. It is not the issue in the military."
Shachnow said he sees the president's decision to tackle this controversial issue as problematical given the country's current situation.
"The timing is very bad," he said. "We are a nation in two wars. The military is stretched. I am not sure all the issues have been worked out. It is not just a question of saying yes. What do you do with gay couples? Is a gay partner treated like a dependent or a wife? They need to think this thing through and make sure that when we implement this we don't stumble over issues and really look foolish."
Opposition to this change is weakening even as those in favor push for immediate action, Shachnow said.
"There are going to be people very, very much opposed to it, but the opposition is not as strong as it would have been 10 or 15 years ago," he said. "Once you say they can serve, you have to treat them like everybody else."
At the time the policy was implemented, it was a compromise.
"Any time a compromise is made, you reach for the lowest common denominator," Shachnow said. "You don't solve the problem with a compromise; you just kick it down the road."
'Why Change It?'
Vice Adm. Kent Carroll, of Pinehurst, contends that the law "has worked very well."
"It doesn't require anybody to lie - that's wrong," he said. "I had 10 different commands. I had six up to captain and then four as an admiral. I've talked to a lot of guys, had a lot of people serving under me.
"Now, I'm dated. I am maybe 25 years past, and maybe the situation has changed, but the young sailors and Marines really didn't like being around gays."
Carroll said he pictured a ship at dock preparing to cast off, with gay men kissing each other like sailors do their wives.
"I guess that would be the thing you would expect ... I am just against it," he said. "It's worked. It's worked quite well. Why change it?"
A recent claim that "don't ask, don't tell" forces gays in the armed services to lie is false, according to Carroll.
"They don't lie, like the chairman (of the Joint Chiefs) says, because we don't ask," Carroll said. "And they don't tell, because we don't ask whether they are gay or not."
Changing the law wouldn't prevent homosexual men and women from keeping their sexual preferences secret anyway, he said.
"Even if we changed, I think a lot of them would remain 'in the closet' because of the peer pressure they'd receive aboard ship, in the bunk rooms," he said. "There are a lot of gays out there, and I have met a few. Having them as friends would be all right.
"I know also that some very senior admirals have written and say (changing the law) would be a very serious mistake. I won't name them, but I know they have."
Carroll said another retired admiral who lives in Pinewild, Snuffy Smith, has been active in opposing any change.
"He put together a little study group, and they have over a thousand names of flag and general officers, retired - lots of four-stars and lots of three-stars and a batch of two-stars - very much against changing 'don't ask, don't tell,'" Carroll said.
Last year, Smith collected more than 1,000 signatures from retired senior military officers, including a number of former top commanders on a letter pressing President Barack Obama and Congress to let the law that bars gays from serving openly in the armed forces remain in place.
Smith's letter bears only a simple statement: "The following Flag & General Officers have signed a statement to the President of the United States and Members of Congress in support for the 1993 law regarding homosexuals in the military (Section 654, Title 10, U.S.C.)."
Admirals and generals who signed are then listed alphabetically in descending order of rank from four stars to one, with four-star Smith in the first section and Carroll, a vice admiral, in the second.
There are well-known names on the list. Among them are Gen. Carl E. Mundy Jr., who was commandant of the Marine Corps; Gen. Charles A. Horner, commander of U.S. aerial forces during the first Gulf War of 1990-91; Adm. Jerome L. Johnson, who had been vice chief of Naval Operations; and Smith himself, former commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe.
Smith said he has no further comments on the issue, that the petition speaks for itself
"I am very much against changing the policy," Carroll said. "This letter that Snuffy Smith put together went to a lot of people. He knows more about the situation and has talked to more people than I have."
He agreed that Shachnow has a point about there being a generational divide.
"I am a different generation completely," Carroll said. "I was on active duty in the Second World War. I don't know. It's been working well, and you don't have to lie to remain in the service."
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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