For Washington base, end of gay ban 'not a lot of change'

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 21, 2011 

TACOMA, Wash. — Retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Oria Berndt endorsed the National Guard's decision two decades ago to discharge a lesbian officer after she disclosed her sexuality. He even appeared on television to speak in favor of barring gays from the military.

Berndt doesn't regret the stand he took then, but he wouldn't make the same choice today. Now 82, he says the Army is ready to incorporate openly gay and lesbian service members into its ranks when the Pentagon's controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy ends next month and the military catches up to changing U.S. views about homosexuality.

"I was against gays in the military at the time, and my feeling at that time was when society accepts gays, then the military can accept gays," the Parkland, Wash., resident said, remembering his support for the National Guard's discharge of then-Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer in 1992.

"I think society's changed."

Berndt's right, say Army officers at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, the largest military installation on the West Coast, where they've finished briefing soldiers on new policies for openly gay service members. They anticipate a relatively easy transition for soldiers who've followed the national debate over the policy and grown more comfortable with the idea of gays serving openly in the military.

The 17-year-old policy requiring gay service members to hide their sexual orientation is scheduled to end Sept. 20, two months after the Pentagon formally certified that it was ready to accept the change.

"There's not a lot of change as far as I'm concerned," said Capt. Ben Schneller, 30, who delivered a series of briefings at Lewis-McChord on the new policy as commander of the 472nd Signal Company in the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment.

Schneller said his 75 soldiers paid close attention during their 90-minute briefings and appeared ready for the policy shift.

"Hey, it's a change, and our job is to move out smartly and accomplish the mission regardless of anything," said Schneller, of Yelm, Wash.

"Repeal day" might pass without much official fuss at Lewis-McChord's Army and Air Force units, but it'll go off with celebrations around the country for gays and lesbians who've concealed their sexuality while serving in the armed forces. Cammermeyer, the colonel whose discharge Berndt supported, plans to attend a party that day in the nation's capital.

A pioneer for gay rights in the military, she won a landmark court case in 1994 that led to her reinstatement in the National Guard.

"I am so tired of being the lesbian rather just being a soldier or a nurse or whatever the title," said Cammermeyer, of Whidbey Island, Wash. "To be identified solely by your sexual orientation — my life is much, much broader than that."

Schneller sounds confident that he can navigate the policy change as an infantry company commander, but he'll have to work through a few gray areas that are arising because of the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that bars gay marriage.

For example, line commanders will have to decide whether to grant emergency leave in certain situations for gay soldiers if their partners become seriously ill. Schneller says he faces the same choice with any soldier whose relatives fall sick. It comes down to whether the company can accomplish its job without a part of its team.

More explicitly, gay soldiers won't be able to use certain benefits for their partners that are provided to married, heterosexual soldiers. They include health insurance, a boost in a monthly housing allowance or the ability to have a gay partner live on base.

That disparity has gay rights groups such as the Courage Campaign highlighting the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" in their push to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act, which they say creates an unfair system for gay service members in committed relationships.

The law "now more clearly than ever is the outlier that will prevent the military from doing its job efficiently," Courage Campaign founder Rick Jacobs said recently.

The Defense Department is taking pains to tell service members which benefits they can assign to unmarried partners, such as death gratuities, life insurance and the right to appoint anyone as a designated caregiver. The Pentagon also says it's reviewing whether to change other benefits.

Its briefings to soldiers included role-playing instances when the subject of someone's sexuality might come up during an assignment, such as a lesbian officer asking for housing benefits after having a child with her partner. That would be permissible because the officer could designate her partner as a primary caregiver to their child.

Another involved intervening to halt gay slurs. Schneller said one of his younger soldiers stepped up during the scenario and said, "That's wrong. We don't tolerate discrimination or harassment in this unit."

The military's tradition as a national mixing pot could help it work through the change just as it could lead to some initial conflicts, said a retired airman from Orting, Wash., who spoke on the condition of anonymity to shield his son, an Army officer, from repercussions.

The airman, who retired in 2001, remembers the military as a place where locker-room talk could easily veer into anti-gay insults, especially among younger service members. The airman's son shares that concern, he said.

"Just imagine the hazing that would take place," he said. "Right now there would be a lot of hazing for anyone that doesn't quite adhere to the norm. It's almost like an elementary schoolyard until you get a little older."

He believes that openly gay service members eventually will be incorporated into the armed forces, but he thinks it's a bad time to make the change while the country's fighting two wars.

"It's another distraction from the job itself," he said.

Army I Corps spokesman Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield said the military will deal with derisive language directed at gays in the same way it addresses inappropriate conduct for all soldiers.

But some in the military remain uncomfortable with openly gay service members. In a Pentagon survey last year, a majority of Marines in combat units opposed the change, even as most service members said it wouldn't disrupt their units.

That was one of the main reasons Berndt, the retired command sergeant major, opposed incorporating openly gay troops during his career.

"I firmly believe that when a man's in combat you have to depend on the guy on your right and on your left. I know we can depend on any trained soldier," he said. "I don't think 20 years ago or even 10 years ago soldiers were comfortable with the thought that the guy on the right could be gay."

Since his retirement, he's noticed popular culture becoming more open to gays and lesbians. He's also seen less hate speech and violence directed at gays. That tells him that society's ready to include gays in its military.

Cammermeyer appreciates the changing attitudes and believes that the law could have been repealed much earlier without opposition in Congress.

"Society is so far ahead of the military, especially for the young people," she said. "In this instance, it's like, 'So, what's the problem?'"

Aside from the repeal and party, she's looking forward to one more thing about Sept. 20.

"Pretty soon we won't have to talk about this ever again," she said.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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