Jeff Howe, who joined the Army after 9/11, and Austin Rooke, a counter-intelligence officer, share two things in common. Both served in Iraq, and both vanished from the front lines—after thousands were spent on their training—all because they preferred to have relationships with men.
Howe, who says he joined the Armed Forces after a lot of soul-searching in the wake of 9/11, was discharged after two tours in Iraq for an online personal ad. Rooke quit, tired of living a lie.
Though the U.S. military continues to struggle to meet recruitment goals—and has lowered "moral standards" such that more than 20,000 men and women recruited in 2005 received waivers from standard Army requirements—gay and lesbian soldiers continue to be pushed out of the armed forces.
In the 12 years since President Bill Clinton signed into law Public Law 103-160, commonly known as Don't Ask Don't Tell, nearly 10,000 military personnel have been discharged because of their sexual orientation. Those terminated include more than 200 medical specialists and 300 linguists, many of whom were trained as much-needed Arabic translators.
Though the Pentagon defends the policy as necessary to ensure unit cohesion, their seemingly selective application of the policy appears to contradict that rationale.
"It is interesting, but not surprising, to learn that after 9/11, the discharges of lesbian and gay servicemembers began a dramatic decline," said Steve Ralls, Director of Communications for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a non-profit that provides legal services to gays in the military. "In fact, whenever the country is at war, lesbian and gay soldiers are far less likely to be discharged, which undermines the Pentagon's primary rationale for the policy."
"They argue that lesbian and gay soldiers undermine unit cohesion, but never is unit cohesion more important than during wartime," he added. "That discharges under the ban decrease during times of war completely undermines their argument for the necessity of the policy. Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on America, gay discharges have declined by more than 40 percent."
In a May 2005 study, "Homosexuals and U.S. Military Policy: Current Issues," the Congressional Research Service suggested the steady decline in discharges of gay servicemembers could be attributed to "random fluctuations in the data."
Yet immediately after the 9/11 attacks, Defense Department spokesperson Maj. James P. Cassella told the San Francisco Chronicle that a stop-loss order to temporarily suspend administrative discharges had been authorized, and, although policies regarding discharges would remain in effect, "Commanders would be given enough latitude in this area to apply good judgment and balance the best interests of the service, the unit and the individual involved."
The military quickly responded by saying they would continue to process the discharges of gay servicemembers, and Pentagon spokesman James Turner said that the military had not changed the policy. Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke told RAW STORY that "no exceptions for someone who was being discharged" for homosexual conduct are made during wartime.
"The policy implements the federal law," Krenke said.
Discharges of gay servicemembers, however, continue to decline during wartime, raising questions about the validity of the Pentagon's defense of the policy.
Nonetheless, even soldiers serving on the frontlines in Iraq have been discharged under the policy. And these discharges are only one part of the story, as some personnel opt against reenlistment because of the weight of the secret they are forced to bear. These are the stories of two soldiers—Jeff Howe and Austin Rooke—told to RAW STORY.
Outed in Iraq: Jeff Howe
On Sept. 11, 2001, Jeff Howe was working in Silicon Valley as a marketing executive and feeling unfulfilled. The attack prompted a lot of soul-searching, and, at the age of twenty-nine, despite having been out for 8 years, he made the decision to join the Army. At the end of 2002, he signed up for two years, deciding, "It would just be like working at a place where I'm not out. I can keep it to myself. To do an honorable thing, I can keep my sexual orientation a secret."
Howe completed his basic training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma in April 2003 and was sent to Fort Riley, Kansas. There he was told his unit would ship out to Iraq in three days. Howe decided to blend in.
"In order to fit in and make things easier for myself, I let people think I was straight in basic training," he said.
The unit being shipped out to Iraq included some of the soldiers with whom he had gone through basic training, so he was forced to keep up the pretense. He wasn't just in the closet; he was known as a straight soldier.
Howe's unit was in Iraq, where he served on the front line, until the spring of 2004. He received five commendations for his service, including the Army Service Ribbon, the National Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal and the Fort Riley "Blue Chip Soldier" Award. When he returned to the States, he felt satisfied with having fulfilled his two-year commitment.
Then, in September of that year, with only weeks to go, Howe was stop-lossed, and sent back to Iraq for a second tour. When he arrived in Iraq in January 2005, he set up a blog.
"I posted every day from January to July," Howe said. "It was like a newsletter to my friends and family, nothing political. The company commander approved everything before it was posted."
In July, some of the unit's trucks were hit with enemy rockets. His company commander told Howe to take pictures and post them on his blog. When the brigade commander was told about the posted pictures, he balked, feeling the pictures would hearten the enemy. Howe was ordered to delete his blog. Quickly thereafter, a background investigation was started to see if Howe had terrorist ties.
In the course of the investigation, military investigators discovered an online profile in which Howe had identified himself as gay.
"They started separation proceedings immediately," Howe said.
Don't Ask Don't Tell stipulates that any statement about one's sexual orientation made in a public forum is grounds for discharge. The Internet is considered a public forum.
"I did everything they asked me to, but I've been denigrated somehow," he said. "For something as innocuous as an online profile, I was being sent home early, but I wasn't allowed to tell anyone why. I went from being in Iraq doing day-to-day soldiering to civilian life in the span of a month."
Howe is regretful not only that his service was cut short, but that his records will forever show that he was "separated early for making homosexual statements." He says members of his unit have been unsupportive. Although he has no legal basis to fight his dismissal, he vows to fight to get Don't Ask Don't Tell repealed. But his allegiance is still to the Service.
"I'm very pro-Army," he said. "It's a great thing, but a flawed great thing. If I didn't think the Army was worth fixing, I wouldn't be talking to you."
Opting Out: Austin Rooke
Austin Rooke, 35, never officially came out during military tenure, but his experience with both officially sanctioned and cultural homophobia contributed to his decision to leave the Army. When he joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) in college at the age of 18, he wasn't even out to himself. He went through four years of college and a year of training in Army intelligence, and was a second lieutenant going through additional training in counter-intelligence, before he first began to acknowledge his sexuality.
As an officer, Rooke says he had "more control over who I associated with." Working in the intelligence corps, "which is generally better educated and more open-minded," Rooke says his early experience was better than some gay soldiers'.
"This was after Don't Ask Don't Tell, and I educated myself on what I could and could not do, and what I could be investigated for," he said. "The intelligence corps also had a radically different atmosphere from the rest of the Army—there were no fag jokes; there were serious discussions about gays in the military. And I lived a half hour away from where I worked, which gave me all the privacy in the world. It's not the same for people who are with their peers and superiors 24 hours a day."
Nonetheless, Rooke decided to leave the Army after his four-year commitment.
"One of the reasons I got out of the Army after they had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars on me is because, at this point, I was an out gay man and had no interest in working for an organization where I couldn't talk about my personal life," he said. "We don't know the huge cost of those getting out because they don't want to continue to serve under such conditions."
After 9/11, Rooke was working for the Gay and Lesbian Task Force when he got a letter from the Army telling him he was being activated. This led to a stint in Qatar during the lead-up to the Iraq invasion. There, Rooke says he experienced an entirely different atmosphere.
"It was the first time I was really isolated and didn't have any friends or support," he said. "The commander was really homophobic, which was the first time I'd experienced that. I think during that time, I experienced what most people feel like when they have to serve without being openly gay. You're in a dangerous situation, away from home. You feel isolated and separate from your teammates, denigrated by your commanders, and afraid to be send home because of a big secret you're carrying."
Eventually, Rooke was able to confide in a female peer, which made his time in Qatar a little easier.
"Keeping that secret sets you apart, but it's the only way to ensure your safety," he said. He notes that coming out is "hard enough as it is without being surrounded 24 hours a day by people who are hostile toward gays. Homophobia is part of the culture—and it's part of the culture because it's the law."
The military continues to defend that law—Don't Ask Don't Tell—even as they turn a blind eye during wartime. For Howe and Rooke, repealing the law is the only way to ensure that lesbian and gay soldiers will be able to serve openly and be equal to their peers.
But, they say, if the law to be changed, it's incumbent upon voters to change it. Commanders have no option but to enforce the policy.
"The military doesn't decide the policy; it's the people of this country who made the law," Rooke said. "If Don't Ask Don't Tell hadn't passed, it would be a lot easier to ignore the existing policy banning gays from serving. But now it's not just military policy, it's federal law, and officers have no option but to adhere to it."