POSTED: 7:44 a.m. HST, Oct 31, 2010
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — If you want to know what a member of the armed forces thinks about repealing "don't ask, don't tell," you could start by asking how old they are.
Generational differences appear to play a prominent role in whether soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors are worried about repealing the policy that has barred gays from serving openly since 1993 but faces a possible court-ordered end. Generation may also influence how a change is implemented, if the courts or Congress ultimately lift the ban.
"Younger soldiers wouldn't have a problem with it, but older soldiers are the ones that enforce Army regulations," noted Jason Ashley, 43, a former Army first sergeant who served with the 101st Airborne Division based at Fort Campbell, Ky.
There is no comprehensive survey of military-wide views of gays in the ranks — yet. The Pentagon is set to release a study of the issue in December after questioning 400,000 service members and 150,000 relatives, an effort ordered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to determine how to repeal the policy without hurting the military.
Officials familiar with its findings told The Associated Press this week that the survey found most U.S. troops and their families don't care whether gays serve openly and think "don't ask, don't tell" could be done away with. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the results of the survey have not been released.
Details on the findings were still scarce. But in conversations with troops and veterans, the idea repeatedly emerges that younger recruits, who make up the bulk of combat troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, are indifferent while older ones, including many officers, don't want the ban lifted.
Many veterans of the current wars use terms like "archaic" and "old-school" to describe the viewpoint they see from higher-ranking officers and others who support the ban.
"You can't expect a 60-year-old colonel who was reared in the 1950s to have the same opinion about homosexuality as a soldier who was reared in the 1990s," said Abel Trevino, who served in the Army from 2003 to 2008, including two tours in Iraq, before returning to civilian life and enrolling at the University of Washington.
Some say that despite the ban, they knew they were serving with gay soldiers. But the topic was simply not discussed and rarely created a problem.
Justin Little, 30, is a National Guard medic who asked that his unit not be identified, because he serves with a gay soldier.
"We keep it to ourselves, because of the current policies, of course, and conceal it from new recruits that we get in our platoon from time to time until we can be confident in how they'd react," Little said.
Lance Shults, 25, a master at arms at Naval Base San Diego, said he was in boot camp with gay men and women, and that serving alongside them isn't a concern. Shults believes his attitude is common among younger members of the military, who have grown up with portrayals of gays in the media and who may be likelier to have openly gay friends or relatives than older officers and enlistees.
"The older generation grew up with a phobia and a stigma and stereotype," he says. "Younger people have been around it longer than older people have. You hear about them in the news, you have gay or lesbian friends. It's not a big deal."
But some veterans say those who support the repeal of the policy don't understand the impact of reversing the rules in a volunteer military force that's currently engaged in two wars.
Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which opposes a repeal, said he thinks older and higher-ranking soldiers and veterans have a more pragmatic view on the issue and its effects on deployments, housing and benefits. Leaders have to consider how even a small change can have ripple effects from the division down to the squad level, he said.
"When you are junior in rank, you have a micro view of the military because it's you and a small unit and you're being told what to do," he said. "When you are senior in rank, you have a macro view because you are in charge of people."
Davis pointed out that there will be resistance to any major change, noting that just this year the Navy allowed women to serve on submarines.
Opposition to a policy change isn't limited to older soldiers, but active duty military personnel are reluctant to go public with their worries, said Elaine Donnelly, executive director of the Center for Military Readiness, a conservative public policy group that opposes repeal of the policy.
She's forwarded concerns from military personnel and their families to Department of Defense officials.
"If you repeal the law and you pitch it as a civil rights issue, there's a corollary issue of zero tolerance toward anyone who disagrees," she said.
Gwendolyn Biggers retired from the Army this year after 21 years and is now pastor at His Glorious Praise Outreach Ministry in Spring Lake, N.C., not far from Fort Bragg, where she served.
Establishing a bond between troops, on the firing range or in the field, is a crucial part of the military experience, Biggers says, which may be jeopardized by ending the policy.
Biggers suspects more people in the military are uncomfortable about the possibility of the policy ending than are willing to speak publicly about it.
"When it's part of government policy, people are going to be uncomfortable with it," she said.
But even those veterans with personal beliefs that don't approve of homosexuality say the law is flawed.
Ashley, who retired in 2007 and now is a pastor near the Fort Campbell installation on the Tennessee-Kentucky state line, said he does not approve of homosexuality based on his Christian beliefs. But, he said, the military should either repeal the law or create an outright ban on gay soldiers because trying to fall somewhere in the middle sends a bad message.
"That's repressive. It's an awful statement to homosexual soldiers and it's an awful statement to leaders," he said.
Breen reported from Raleigh, N.C.