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Special forces wary of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ repeal
Question of the Day
Special-operations troops think the elite force is facing difficulties by accepting open gays into one of the military's more politically conservative communities.
Interviews with current and former commandos reveal that to maintain unit cohesion of Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs or other elite covert warriors, the military services and U.S. Special Operations Command need to make a special effort to ensure both homosexuals and heterosexuals know the rules of conduct.
"I'm unsure how the Defense Department will define 'openly gay,' " said one Green Beret officer. "I can envision all sorts of new regulations or changes to existing ones, class after class, accusations flying, and more strains on our soldiers. We will spend hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, to establish the new rules of the road and to implement them."
Of particular interest is how Navy SEALs, the macho sea, air and land commandos who put great emphasis on physical prowess, will accept gays.
"If an open gay does his job, I think he'll be accepted," said retired Rear Adm. George R. Worthington, a former Navy SEAL. At retirement in 1992, Adm. Worthington commanded the Naval Special Warfare Command, the unit that mints new SEALs in a demanding qualification process.
"I don't think there is going to be that many of them that want to sign up for SEALs anyway because of the closeness and the tightness of the training," Adm. Worthington said.
"My opinion is that they're probably more clerical oriented. Medical profession. Corpsmen. Stuff like that."
Gay-advocacy groups said they know of no research that estimates the percentage of gays in support or desk jobs, compared with close-knit combat occupations, such as special operations and infantry.
Integration in what are called special-operations forces (SOF) is particularly important in the war on terrorism. Covert units are active in Afghanistan hunting down insurgents. Troops are expected to bond closely in small units and survive in harsh forward camps.
Special Operations Command oversees about 60,000 troops, including active and reserves. Of those, about 19,000 are combatants, what the command calls operators.
"It would be premature for me to speculate on how USSOCOM will implement the new policy," spokesman Kenneth McGraw said.
In March, Adm. Eric Olson, who heads Special Operations Command, was asked about the ban during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
"I believe the time has come to consider a change to 'don't ask, don't tell,' " Adm. Olson said. "But I think it should be done in a thoughtful and deliberative manner that should include the conduct of the review that [Defense] Secretary [Robert M.] Gates has directed that would consider the views in the force on a change in the policy. It would include an assessment of the likely effects on recruiting, retention, morale and cohesion and would include an identification of what policies might be needed in the event of a change and recommend those policies as well."
The Pentagon has begun a process expected to last several months to usher in open gays, with the first step the writing of regulations and education program to ensure both homosexuals and heterosexuals know what is expected of them.
"Put the word out," said Adm. Worthington. "If you hit on somebody, you're going to get in a fistfight. You may not like it. I just think if they maintain their composure, they don't bother anybody." The Washington Times interviewed three Army Green Berets who deployed to Afghanistan. They asked not to be named because they are not authorized to speak to the press.
"Our folks tend to be more mature, so that may make it easier," said one officer, who supported repeal. "But, many parts of the SOF community are very white and conservative. That already hurts minority recruitment and will inevitably have an adverse affect on outwardly gay male soldiers." A 1999 Rand study found that "blacks are particularly underrepresented [in SOF] when compared with their presence in the source populations."
The Pentagon's undersecretary of defense for personnel is leading the creation of new open-gay regulations.
Another Green Beret officer said he fears Pentagon bureaucrats are so removed from barracks life they will not take privacy into account.
"It is such a complicated issue, and the military itself doesn't seem to realize what it may be in for in the coming years," the officer said.
"Take the issue of showers. Is a soldier wrong for not wanting to shower with a gay soldier?" he asked "The definition of 'coed' needs to be defined, and it is not adequately covered by existing regulations. I think there will be very interesting lawsuits in the future raised by conservative soldiers as a backlash."
The first Green Beret commando said the military does not even know how many gays are in the active force, making it difficult to target education programs. "So is it worth the strains, is it worth the cost, especially at a period in time when combat soldiers are indeed stressed and the economy is in bad shape?" the officer said.
"My rhetorical question is, 'Why couldn't we have waited until a period of relative peace to implement these changes? That's what we did with racial integration; that's what we did to go to an all-volunteer force."
A former ground intelligence officer who worked with some of the most secret special-operations warriors told The Times: "I believe it will be less of an issue in SOF units where operators are typically more intelligent out-of-the-box thinkers who have gone through an extremely challenging bonding process together."
The Pentagon working group set up to recommend how - not whether - to integrate open gays found the most resistance among Marine Corps and Army combat personnel - the ones who deploy in small units and intimate surroundings.
More than 60 percent of Marines, for example, said avowed gays will hurt their unit's effectiveness. The survey did not specifically query special operators.
The working group's report contained this observation: "These survey results reveal to us a misperception that a gay man does not 'fit' the image of a good warfighter - a misperception that is almost completely erased when a gay service member is allowed to prove himself alongside fellow warfighters.
"Anecdotally, we heard much the same. As one special-operations force warfighter told us, 'We have a gay guy [in the unit]. He's big, he's mean, and he kills lots of bad guys. No one cared that he was gay.' "
Said Adm. Worthington: "It just depends on how they comport themselves. If they start breaking out the bows and the earrings in the barracks, that might cause a little trouble. That becomes a good order and discipline sort of thing. The services are going to have to tighten up on regulations."
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