WASHINGTON – Hundreds of officers and health care professionals have been discharged in the past 10 years under the Pentagon's policy on gays, a loss that while relatively small in numbers involves troops who are expensive for the military to educate and train.
The 350 or so affected are a tiny fraction of the 1.4 million members of the uniformed services and about 3.5 percent of the more than 10,000 people discharged under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy since its inception in 1994.
But many were military school graduates or service members who went to medical school at the taxpayers' expense — troops not as easily replaced by a nation at war that is struggling to fill its enlistment quotas.
"You don't just go out on the street tomorrow and pluck someone from the general population who has an Air Force education, someone trained as a physician, someone who bleeds Air Force blue, who is willing to serve, and that you can put in Iraq tomorrow," said Beth Schissel, who graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1989 and went on to medical school.
Schissel was forced out of the military after she acknowledged that she was gay.
According to figures compiled by the Pentagon and released by the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, Schissel is one of 244 medical and health professionals discharged from 1994 through 2003 under the policy that allows gays and lesbians to serve as long as they abstain from homosexual activity and do not disclose their sexual orientation. Congress approved the policy in 1993.
There were 137 officers discharged during that period. The database compiled by the Pentagon does not include names, but it appears that about 30 of the medical personnel who were discharged may also be included in the list of officers.
The center — a research unit of the Institute for Social, Behavioral & Economic Research of the University of California — promotes analysis of the issue of gays in the military.
"These discharges comprise a very small percentage of the total and should be viewed in that context," said Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman. She added that troops discharged under the law can continue to serve their country by becoming a private military contractor or working for other federal agencies.
Opponents of the policy on gays acknowledge that the number of those discharged is small. But they say the policy exacerbates a shortage of medical specialists in the military when they are needed the most.
Late last year Army officials acknowledged in a congressional hearing that they are seeing shortfalls in key medical specialties.
"What advantage is the military getting by firing brain surgeons at the very time our wounded soldiers aren't receiving the medical care they need?" said Aaron Belkin, associate professor of political science at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Overall, the number of discharges has gone down in recent years.
"When we're at war, commanders know that gay personnel are just as important as any other personnel," said Nathaniel Frank, senior research fellow at the Center. He said that in some instances commanders knew someone in their unit was gay but ignored it.
The overall discharges peaked in 2000 and 2001, on the heels of the 1999 murder of Pfc. Barry Winchell, who was bludgeoned to death by a fellow soldier at Fort Campbell, Ky., who believed Winchell was gay. About one-sixth of the discharges in 2001 were at that base.
Officials did not provide estimates on the cost of a military education or one for medical personnel. However, according to the private American Medical Student Association, average annual tuition and fees at public and private U.S. medical schools in 2002 were $14,577 and $30,960, respectively.
Early last year the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, estimated it cost the Pentagon nearly $200 million to recruit and train replacements for the nearly 9,500 troops that had to leave the military because of the policy. The losses included hundreds of highly skilled troops, including translators, between 1994 through 2003.
Opponents of the policy are backing legislation in the House sponsored by Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., that would repeal the law. But that bill — with 107 co-sponsors — is considered a longshot in the Republican-controlled House.