August 26, 2010 at 5:41 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Troop survey draws criticism

Defense Secretary Robert Gates (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

A new Pentagon study that aims to gather the views of military spouses on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal has invoked the ire of LGBT advocacy groups that are claiming bias in the questionnaire.

According to the Defense Department, the survey went out Aug. 20 to 150,000 military households and is intended to inform the work of the Pentagon group working on a plan to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“We’re going to look at that information and develop an implementation plan for a possible repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’” said Cynthia Smith, a Defense Department spokesperson.

But LGBT rights groups advocating for repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” say the survey questions are biased and assume a negative impact of repealing the 1993 law banning open service in the U.S. military.

Among the survey questions:

• Has your spouse ever worked on a daily basis with an individual he or she believed to be a homosexual service member?

• Compared with other service members in the community, how much did that service member participate in military social activities?

• Would a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” affect your preference for your spouse’s plans for his or her future in the military?

• Assume “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is repealed and you live in on-base housing. If a gay or lesbian service member lived in your neighborhood with their partner, would you stay on-base or would you try to move out?

Alex Nicholson, executive director of the Servicemembers United, said Monday in a statement that the spousal survey was even more derogatory toward gay and lesbian personnel than a previous survey sent directly to U.S. troops.

“While it is wise to solicit and consider military spouse input on policy changes that will have a major impact on military families, it is extremely unwise to do so for issues that have minimal impact on spouses while also using poorly designed, biased and derogatory survey instruments,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson added that the Pentagon should be concerned with what he called “real family readiness issues,” such as excessive deployments, inadequate mental health support and low troop pay.

Michael Cole, a Human Rights Campaign spokesperson, said in response to a Blade inquiry on the survey that his organization doesn’t believe the survey is necessary in the first place.

“Gay and lesbian troops are serving now, albeit in silence,” Cole said. “Given that this entire process is about how, not if, to implement repeal, we look forward to the day sometime soon when all of these are non-issues to open service.”

The spousal survey comes on the heels of another survey the Pentagon issued to 450,000 troops to collect their views on eliminating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

According to the Pentagon, only about one-quarter of those surveys were returned by their due date on Aug. 25. Smith said the Pentagon received 110,000 of the 450,000 surveys it distributed.

Nicholson said such a return rate shows troops have little interest in the survey and don’t care about changing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“While the Department of Defense and [survey coordinator] Westat are spinning the low response rate to the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ survey as expected and sufficient, neither are disclosing the fact that the military leaders have had to put significant pressure on troops on multiple occasions to even get this level of response,” Nicholson said. “Some commanders and senior leaders have even told subordinates that participation is mandatory.”

Nicholson said the limited responses degrade of the credibility of the survey and “violate ethical standards that prevent researchers from compelling respondents to participate in survey research.”

In addition to seeking input from military spouses, the Pentagon also is working with LGBT groups to find a way to obtain feedback from the same-sex partners of U.S. service members without outing those troops under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Smith said the Pentagon is “currently in the process” of working with advocacy groups to determine how to reach out to partners of gay and lesbian service members.

Trevor Thomas, spokesperson for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, said SLDN is among the groups with which the Pentagon is consulting on this matter.

“While there are legal questions and concerns around confidentiality, we’re working to find the safest approach possible and make sure their important voices are heard,” he said.

Palm Center report
shows ‘Don’t Ask’ costs

In a related development, the Palm Center, a think tank on gays in the military at the University of California, Santa Barbara, last week published a report outlining 12 “costs” of the law.

The report, titled “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Detailing the Damage,” cites several ways in which the U.S. military has been harmed as a result of having the law in place for 17 years.

According to the report, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” harms the armed services by:

• wasting the talents of essential personnel with critical skills who were fired for their sexual orientation, including Arabic language specialists, medical professionals and combat aviators. The report cites a Governmental Accountability Office study saying 757 troops with “critical occupations” were fired between fiscal years 1994 and 2003;

• hampering recruitment and retention by shrinking the pool of potential enlistees for the U.S. military. The report cites a study from the Williams Institute at the University of California that says 41,000 qualified gay Americans may join the U.S. armed forces if the ban on open service were lifted;

• imposing financial costs on the U.S. military. The report cites a 2005 GAO study saying “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has cost the military $190.5 million: $95.4 million to recruit replacements for service members separated under the policy and $95.1 million to train them;

• wasting the time of officers who must investigate and discharge outed gay, lesbian and bisexual troops.

In a statement, Nathaniel Frank, who wrote the report as a senior fellow at the Palm Center, said the work is intended to draw new attention to the damage that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” inflicts on the military.

“Much of the debate about whether to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ has focused on the fact that the ban is unfair and unnecessary,” he said. “But there is less familiarity with the profound damage the policy causes, and so there isn’t quite the sense of urgency among some policymakers to lift the ban. This report details a long list of costs imposed by ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, that show the policy has achieved the opposite of what it was supposed to accomplish.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

  • If the only problem with this survey you can find is that it uses the word “homosexual,” frankly you’re not looking hard enough. How about the fact that they’re doing the survey at all? It will without a doubt be used to justify maintaining Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, because “the troops aren’t ready for it.” In a community based entirely on top-down orders, the idea of asking the low men on the totem pole whether they agree is unheard-of. Furthermore, the Pentagon said they wanted to hear from partners of current gay/lesbian servicemembers – nevermind that in order to do that, they’d have to out themselves and, by extension, their partners who aren’t protected under any kind of new law or policy. Talk about ridiculous.

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