Thursday, June 21, 2007

Why America is Less Safe Because of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (Part 3)

Former Army linguist Alexander Nicholson recently described how the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy has impeded efforts to keep America safe. A shortage of Arabic linguists in the Department of Defense's national security unit meant that two crucial phrases uttered on Sept. 10, 2001, didn't get translated until Sept. 12 -- the day after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Those phrases were "tomorrow is zero hour" and "the match begins tomorrow," Nicholson told a crowd last week in Des Moines. “Any of the 60 of the Arab linguists the DOD was forced to fire because of the DADT law could’ve easily translated those phrases from Arabic into English and helped save American lives,” he said.

Nicholson, a former Army linguist who was discharged after he was outed, joined the Human Rights Campaign’s, “A Legacy of Service” tour to speak out against the DADT policy. Joined by four other veterans at the campaign’s national kick-off at the Iowa Historical Building, Nicholson used his story to illustrate how DADT and the firing of gay linguists has made America more vulnerable.

“Congress is forcing the military to fire some of its best and brightest assets and will continue to do so until the Military Readiness Enhancement Act is passed and singed into law,” said Nicholson. “No one wants to play politics with the lives of your children and our brothers, but the mandated firing of critical personnel puts our troops into danger and makes America less safe.”

Nicholson, a trained human intelligence collector, was discharged six months after 9/11, when, out of spite, a friend of his used the military chain of command to “out” him. He is not alone. Since DADT was implemented in 1993, more than 11,000 soldiers have been discharged from the military. Of these, 323 were linguists, 60 of whom specialized in Arabic. Today, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has nearly 1,000 personnel, but only a handful of fluent Arabic speakers.

Meanwhile, as the Army struggles to recruit new soldiers and meet the demands of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon is firing two gay people every day. Instead of pushing Congress to pass the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (H.R. 1246 ), which would repeal DADT, the Army has taken other steps to meet these demands such as enlisting felons, extending the age limit to 42, and extending soldiers’ deployment tours from 12 months to 15 months. On Monday, the Pentagon announced that it was considering the idea of a maximum 120-day extension for roughly 15,000 troops currently serving in Iraq.

Not only does DADT hurt recruitment efforts, but Nicholson contends the policy undermines soldiers and the commanders on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, who, by law, cannot speak out against military policies. “The ban on gay men and women in the military is an insult to the commanders on the ground, because it tells them that Congress does not trust them to do their jobs and keep order and discipline in their units,” said Nicholson. “And it’s an insult to our troops, because it assumes that they are so prejudiced and unprofessional that their own order and discipline would fall apart if they knew a gay man or woman was serving beside them.” A 2006 study conducted by Zogby International and the Michael D. Palm Center revealed that 73 percent of U.S. troops are comfortable in the presence of gays and lesbians.

The military has traditionally led the fight when it comes to mandating policies that combat discrimination, but it has yet to fully open its gates to gay soldiers. “When I walked through the gates at my boot camp in Ft. Benning, Georgia, my drill instructor made it very clear,” said Nicholson. “If you have a problem working and serving beside women, leave it at the gate. If you have a problem working and serving beside African-Americans, leave it at the gate.’ And he could just as easily say, for the good of our country, if you have a problem working beside a gay man or woman, leave it at the gate.”

Related Story:

Lift the Ban” organization has released a short film, “’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and Gay Arabic Linguists.” The film was produced by the “Brave New Foundation” and features Stephen Benjamin, a former Navy Arabic Linguist, who was discharged under the DADT policy. Also, be sure to read Benjamin’s op-ed piece, "Don't Ask, Don't Translate," which was originally published in the “New York Times.”

Arabic translator fired from the Navy for being gay

Read Part 1: "Human Rights Campaign Launches 'Legacy of Service' Tour"

Read Part 2: "'Legacy of Service' Vets Speak Out Against 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'"

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