Commentary: Time to end 'don't ask, don't tell'

Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.
Mary Sanchez is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. MCT

The soldier with the most sway to end the military’s disastrous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy never moved past private first class.

He was murdered before he could complete what probably would have been an honorable career, with his expert marksmanship and plans to pilot helicopters.

Barry Winchell died at 21. He’s buried in Kansas City.

His 1999 murder — he was beaten in the head with a baseball bat wielded by a fellow soldier — should have ended “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Winchell was attacked because other soldiers perceived him to be gay.

And the military’s code of not asking and not telling about such things acted like a shield for his tormentors at Fort Campbell, Ky.

Sure, the military also says harassment should not be tolerated. But in Winchell’s case, that wasn’t enough to stop ongoing problems. Two soldiers were convicted in his death. One served his sentence and has been released.

That’s a huge slap to Winchell’s parents, who live in south Kansas City.

Wally and Pat Kutteles continue to plead with Congress and military leaders to end the policy. They believe don’t ask “amounts to an endorsement of harassment and discrimination.”

By not clearly stating that gay soldiers are just as welcome as straight ones, the military sets up a difficult situation to govern its rank and file.

Soldiers who are gay do not want to report harassment, fearful that raising the issue will result in their own dismissal. Homophobic soldiers use the military’s tepid stand as a cover for their views.

In recent months we’ve seen top military leaders admit that attitudes about homosexuality have changed since “don’t ask, don’t tell” was first implemented. An outright repeal of it would accelerate acceptance even more.

And this month, a federal judge ordered the military “immediately to suspend and discontinue any investigation” or other proceedings to dismiss gay service members.

The Obama administration, despite pledging to end the policy in 2010, may appeal. Military leaders are also stalling, saying they want more study before soldiers can openly serve.

Someone needs to admit the truth.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” was a farce from the beginning. The government and military leaders settled for a policy that neither fully acknowledged nor protected soldiers it knew were in the ranks.

Of course, it never worked.

Gay soldiers have long existed in the military. It’s time the military began respecting their presence and ensuring their safety.

Winchell’s short tenure as a soldier deserves a more honorable stand.

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