WASHINGTON – Lawmakers who say the military has kicked out 58 Arabic linguists because they were gay want the Pentagon to explain how it can afford to let the valuable language specialists go.
Seizing on the latest discharges, involving three specialists, members of the House of Representatives wrote the House Armed Services Committee chairman that the continued loss of such "capable, highly skilled Arabic linguists continues to compromise our national security during time of war."
One sailor discharged in the latest incident, former Petty Officer 2nd Class Stephen Benjamin, said his supervisor tried to keep him on the job, urging him to sign a statement denying that he was gay. He said his lawyer advised him not to sign it, because it could be used against him later if other evidence ever surfaced.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Benjamin said he was caught improperly using the military's secret level computer system to send messages to his roommate, who was serving in Iraq. In those messages, he said, he may have referred to being gay or going on a date.
"I'd always been out since the day I started working there," Benjamin said. "We had conversations about being gay in the military and what it was like. There were no issues with unit cohesion. I never caused divisiveness or ever experienced slurs."
He was discharged under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law passed in 1994. The law allows gays to serve if they keep their sexual orientation private and do not engage in homosexual acts. It prohibits commanders from asking about a person's sex life and requires discharge of those who acknowledge they are gay.
Democratic Rep. Marty Meehan, who has pushed for repeal of the law, organized the letter sent to Skelton requesting a hearing into the Arab linguist issue.
"At a time when our military is stretched to the limit and our cultural knowledge of the Middle East is dangerously deficient, I just can't believe that kicking out able, competent Arabic linguists is making our country any safer," Meehan said.
The letter, signed by about 40 House members, says that, with the latest firings, 58 Arab linguists have been dismissed from the military under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. It said Congress should decide whether this application of the policy "is serving the nation well."
For Benjamin, 23, the discharge ended a military career he had hoped to continue.
He said he was particularly frustrated that he was among about 70 people investigated at a base in the state of Georgia for using the computer to send personal notes, and others who are not gay still are in the Army, even though they were caught sending sexual and profane messages.
He said investigators from the Defense Department's Inspector General's office pulled the message logs for one day and reviewed them for violations. Some workers, he said, received administrative punishments for writing dirty jokes, profanity and explicit sexual references.
According to researchers at the California-based Michael D. Palm Center, which tracks these issues, three Arabic linguists were fired as a result of the computer reviews. Their names were not released, but Benjamin agreed to discuss the incident publicly.
Aaron Belkin, director of the center, said, "There is simply no commonsense reason for the military to fire Arabic linguists in the midst of a dire shortage of translators. Translating Al Qaeda cables is more important than making sure that the military is free of gays."
Marine Maj. Stewart Upton, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department is enforcing the law.
"The Department of Defense must ensure that the standards for enlistment and appointment of members of the armed forces reflect the policies set forth by Congress," he said, adding that those dismissed can serve their nation by working as contractors or at other federal agencies.
Benjamin said the computer review was done last December, but his discharge was not finalized until the end of March. His roommate, he said, was allowed to finish out his tour in Iraq and came home in February, then was discharged in early April.
"I was always discreet; I never considered it would be an issue," said Benjamin, when asked why he joined the military knowing the policy existed. "I thought if I don't say anything, they're not going to ask me. But it was more aggressive than I thought."
Meehan's bill to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has 124 co-sponsors, but efforts to get Congress to take another look at the issue have failed so far. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this year that he had no plan to review the policy.