The number of military personnel dismissed for homosexuality jumped 17% last year, to 1,212, the highest figure since the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy on homosexuality was implemented in 1994, according to Pentagon figures released Friday.
The largest contributor to the increase came in a spike in numbers from the Army and particularly at Ft. Campbell, Ky., where two years ago a gay soldier was killed by fellow soldiers as he slept. Homosexual dismissal figures for the Army leaped to 573 for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up from 271 the prior year; 161 of the dismissals were at Ft. Campbell.
Gay rights advocates contended that the figures demonstrated that an anti-gay atmosphere persisted at Ft. Campbell after Pfc. Barry L. Winchell's death. And they charged that the general upward drift in the numbers--now their highest since 1987, when they reached 1,380--shows the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is failing.
"They don't feel safe under this policy, and they're losing faith that the leadership is going to step up and protect them," said C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of the Service Members Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group in Washington.
But military officials denied systematic mistreatment of gays. And some officers speculated that many dissatisfied soldiers may be declaring themselves homosexual as a quick and easy way to leave the military.
The "don't ask" policy, adopted amid intense controversy in the early days of the Clinton administration, is intended to allow homosexuals to serve in the military so long as they commit no homosexual acts and do not declare their homosexuality. Military leaders are limited in their ability to investigate whether troops are gay.
Under the policy, when a service member declares he is gay, his superiors are instructed to take him at his word and allow him to depart without an investigation. This rule means that in the Army, for example, soldiers can be out in as few as four days, in some cases.
In contrast, it typically takes weeks or months for a soldier to be discharged for failing to perform up to standard, or for misconduct, officials noted.
Army Chaplain Duncan Baugh, an Army personnel specialist, said soldiers at Ft. Campbell had become intensely aware of the special aspects of the "don't ask" policy in the aftermath of Winchell's death, amid wide publicity and a series of official investigations.
The controversy "created a very unique environment down there," Baugh said. He pointed out that all of the homosexual separation cases at Ft. Campbell involved soldiers declaring themselves homosexual, rather than being caught committing homosexual acts.
Asked about activists' arguments that homosexual soldiers are unhappy under the "don't ask" policy, Baugh pointed out that the federal law crafting the policy states that homosexuality is "incompatible" with military service.
The policy "still makes it a requirement of them to suppress that part of their life," he said. "I can't imagine that that doesn't create a cloud in their lives."
Debate about treatment of gays in the ranks grew after the murder of Winchell, who was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat. An investigation found that commanders had ignored reports that Winchell had been taunted for months before his murder; but separate probes concluded that there was not an atmosphere of homophobia on the base.
Osburn, of the Service Members Legal Defense Network, said his group believes the spike in numbers at Ft. Campbell is connected to the leadership of the installation's former commander, Maj. Gen. Robert Clark. He said the atmosphere at the base has improved since Clark was replaced and said it is possible that the numbers of Army departures for the current year may be down substantially as a result.
While the Army numbers jumped in fiscal 2000, figures for the Air Force declined markedly. Departures fell to 177 from 352.
That drop may reflect a new approach to handling the issue at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, the service's main basic training center.
Under a policy put in place last year, new airmen who tell superiors they are gay are given special counseling and a waiting period before they are removed from the service. This policy has slowed departures, officials say.
The Navy's figures rose to 358 from 314 the previous year, while the Marine Corps number rose to 104 from 97.
Of the 1,212 total departures, only 106 resulted from the commission of homosexual acts; the remainder were from statements.
Bush administration officials have made no change in the policy and have signaled that they are content with the "don't ask, don't tell" approach. President Bush has described himself as a "don't ask, don't tell man."
Yet the general upward drift of the numbers may create political pressure for some response from the new team.
Asked whether the new Pentagon leadership is concerned about the long-term trend, spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said: "Ever since the law has been in place, we have tried our very best to treat each case on its merits."
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Gays Discharged From Military
The number of gays discharged from the military rose last year to its highest level in years. The Department of Defense permits homosexuals to serve so long as they do not engage in homosexual conduct or state their sexual orientation.
Branch 1997 1998 1999 2000 Air Force 309 414 352 177 Army 197 310 271 573 Marine Corps 78 76 97 104 Navy 413 345 314 358 TOTAL 997 1,145 1,034 1,212
Sources: Department of Defense, Associated Press