Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

It’s been a week now.

A week since Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed.

Despite dire predictions and the horrified wailing from the general direction of the American Southwest, there’s been no mutiny in the ranks, no revolt, no revolution.  There’s been no desertions, singly or en mass.   There has been no sudden collapse of good order and discipline.  Morale and esprit de corps remain high (or as high as you would expect given that we’re now entering our tenth year of perpetual combat operations).  Our military medical system hasn’t collapsed under the sudden onslaught of Teh Gay Diseases. Soldiers aren’t wandering about holding hands and sporting rainbow colored berets and pastel camies.

No, it’s been pretty much business as usual.

As you probably know, I spent most of my life in the US Navy.  Being retired, I’m no longer on active duty, but I’m not entirely a civilian either.  These days I work with both US Air Force and US Army personnel. I’m surrounded by the military on a daily basis.  Given my background and embedded as I am, I enjoy a vantage point that gives me a fairly good cross-sectional view of the US Military. I see things. I hear things. And you’d think the DADT repeal would be a hot topic around base.  You’d think, man, as big a deal as the repeal was on Capitol Hill, in Washington, at the Pentagon, military folks would be talking about it.  Given the sheer volume of pundit bloviating from FoxNews, and the squawking from those Lame Ducks, and the enormous amount of hot flatulent air emanating from John McCain, you’d think then that DADT would be a big damned deal around here. Wouldn’t you?

If you thought that, you’d be wrong.

Seventeen years ago, when Bill Clinton hammered out the deal that would let gays serve covertly in the military, I was stationed in Maine, a student at a small specialized training facility. The Lieutenant in charge shut down the course and gathered staff and students into the classroom to ask us all what we thought of the new policy.  He didn’t try to explain Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (probably because the regulation seemed fairly self explanatory) or what it would mean to the military or to us in particular – we were all involved in a highly classified and unusual program, and upon graduation, assuming we graduated, we’d all be headed off to small, very tightly knit, self-contained units in remote and isolated locations. In garrison we would live like any other small military unit ashore, but when deployed to the field our twelve person teams lived in each others’ pockets and there was no privacy at all.  Our ability to carry out our highly complex and difficult mission, often under extreme circumstance, depended entirely on how well we worked together, on how well we got along.  If we couldn’t trust each other, if we couldn’t come together as a team, we would most certainly fail.  Given our situation, there wasn’t much we didn’t know about each other – and I happen to know that more than one of those folks was indeed gay, but I didn’t ask and they didn’t tell and DADT didn’t really change much of anything.  The Lieutenant certainly didn’t explain how this change in policy would affect us, he just wanted our opinions regarding gays serving secretly among us (and frankly I’m pretty sure the LT was gay, but I digress).  As I recall, most of us didn’t care one way or the other, I know I didn’t. The exception, of course, was the fundamentalist Christian member of our cadre – who opined loudly that God had created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve (the first time I’d ever heard that particular expression. It wouldn’t be the last).

Oddly enough, my training group, the twelve of us gathered in that classroom wondering how to answer the Lieutenant’s question, was the first to incorporate women – two of them in fact.  

The program was fairly young in those days, only a couple of years old, but up until my class it had been a good ole boy kind of assignment.  Given the nature of the mission, the harsh physicality of it, the isolation, the close quarters, it had been designed as a male-only mission. The introduction of woman, by Congressional decree in the immediate aftermath of the Navy’s Tailhook Scandal, was received about like you’d expect in the male-dominated Navy of that time, i.e. not well.  The quarters, equipment, and machines we lived in, both in garrison and in the field, had to be modified in order to provide a bare modicum of privacy – something that had never been necessary before.  Odd questions came up, embarrassing questions, things that people didn’t know how to deal with.  Here’s an example (one of many):  In the field, we were self-contained. We lived and worked within specialized shelters, semi-trailers coupled together into a mission complex.  In one of the shelters there was a very small shower/toilet area. Given the parameters we had to operate under, our system could not store wastes, e.g. we had no sewage tank like you’d find in an RV. The shower and small sink therefore drained gray water to a pit outside. But, obviously, that wasn’t an option for the toilet.  Instead we used something called an Incinolet, commonly referred to as the “Atomic Shitter.” This foul monstrosity was a stainless steel throne with a clamshell device under the seat. You put a tissue-paper liner in the bowl, did your business, and when you were done you stood up and closed the lid and pressed a foot pedal on the base of the machine.  The waste bag would (hopefully) drop into a bin underneath and (hopefully) be incinerated into (hopefully) sterile ash by high voltage electric coils.  There were some drawbacks.  The bag didn’t always completely clear the clamshell, which meant that the machine wouldn’t work, sometimes you’d have to reach in there and fix it. Even when the bag dropped on the correct trajectory the system was complex and finicky and didn’t always work right.  It took twenty or thirty minutes per cycle, depending on, uh, well, the size of the load. It vented clouds of noxious smoke to the outside, which often, depending on the prevailing wind, blew directly into the shelter environmental control air intake and filled our life support system with the sickening stench of burning crap (more than once, the shelter’s Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological protection systems were activated in an attempt to filter out the foul cloud, often with less than complete success).  God help you if the power failed during a turd burn because then the exhaust system would shut down and the outside vent flaps dropped closed and the shelters would fill with dense shit-flavored smoke. At least once a watch, depending on usage, the unit’s ash pan would have to be emptied (people living on MRE’s tend to need to use the toilet a lot, it’s true, you can look it up), a job that was, shall we say, not particularly popular  – especially if the incinerator didn’t finish the job completely and left you with a honeypot of bubbling hot liquefied feces, or just failed to work altogether, which happened so often that it became a tired joke (remember, military equipment is built by the lowest bidder).  Another interesting quirk of the Atomic Shitter was this: you never, ever, ever, pushed the flush pedal whilst enthroned. Really.  Because, see, sometimes, the previous load was still burning down there under your bum and while this made the stainless steel seat nice and warm (something deeply appreciated when we operated in northern winter Maine or Alaska at -30F), pushing the pedal when the cooker was engaged would open the clamshell letting oxygen into the incinerator compartment resulting in orange sooty flames shooting up out of the bowl – filling the shelter with both the smell of burning turds and the smell of burning ass hair, usually followed by yelling and cursing. Yes, the Atomic Shitter was the source of much amusement, and much horror, and just something we lived with as part of the job. 

But see, here’s the thing, up until my class, nobody had ever wondered if the toilet would work for women – or to be more precise, women’s particular needs, say like feminine hygiene products.  Seems silly, doesn’t it? If the incinerator would (hopefully) vaporize human waste, it should (hopefully) have no problem with pads and tampons.  Right?  Well, no, actually. Or rather, maybe. Depending.  The system was designed to (hopefully) work with wet human waste (and it didn’t work all that great when operated within design parameters), what would happen when you introduced cotton, paper, and plastic?  You might have a fire, which in our self-contained system was a major concern.  The plastic or foam material from certain products could melt onto the electrodes, fouling (heh heh) the system. If it failed we didn’t have much alternative other than finding a convenient tree and dropping trou at -30F.  And what if we couldn’t put that stuff in there? What would we do with it? Store it? For weeks? Where? There were twelve to fourteen of us living inside a space about the size of a minivan (with a menstruating woman for God’s sake) – there wasn’t any extra room for the storage of biological waste.  What the hell were we supposed to do? Congress didn’t bother to tell us that, they just waved their flabby arms and said, “make it so.”

In the end, the manufacturer gave us a list of products that could be safely disposed of in the incinerator and the women used those for the duration of the deployment if it became necessary and the issue became moot (ultimately, and against regulation, we started ordering Port-O-Potties from a local vender whenever we happened to be deployed and just stopped using that stinking monstrosity altogether).  Again, seems silly, all this concern about something simple, doesn’t it?   Funny thing: after all of that, those two women didn’t work out and both left the program within a year – but many female Sailors followed them and by the time I helped decommission the program years later, women had been an integral part of the teams for so long that few even knew that it had ever been different. 

That same exact problem, the hygiene product problem, was a huge issue when women began going to sea on Navy combat ships in large numbers – as a combat ship’s sanitation system simply was not designed to deal with feminine hygiene products on a large scale.  When those ships were built, nobody ever thought about female crew, there were no such things.  But the Navy and military changed and somebody did have to think about it. It was a minor thing, comparatively speaking. But that and the myriad of other issues, some real, some imagined, some simple, some horribly complex, the difficult issues that come from putting young, physically fit, very active, and by design strongly heterosexual people together into small spaces, and isolated, stressful, and often dangerous situations for long periods of time had to be dealt with – and in fact we’re still dealing with it.  And it is  far, far more complex than simply waving a magic wand, or changing a law or a regulation, or saying, “make it so.”

But, it did happen.  Women were integrated seamlessly into the military.  And the military did what the US military always does, what we were designed to do, what we are sworn to do – we followed the orders of the civilian leadership and in the end we did make it so.

We lost people along the way, those who could not, or would not, change. 

But, we gained people too. Good people.  Many of them were women.

And the United State military became better for it, much better, more professional, more honorable, more capable, more diverse, more innovative, more flexible, more intelligent, more efficient. This result is unsurprising when you realize that we’d been keeping half our population, half our talent, half our ability, and half our viewpoints away, out of sight, out of mind. Stupid. Obviously. In retrospect. And nowadays, military folks look at you funny if you ask them whether or not women should serve on the front lines (well, most of them anyway).  Change in large systems is hard and often fraught with peril, but without it you get stagnation.  The military is a conservative entity by nature, by design, but it does change – even if sometimes that change is forced by direction. The Commandant of the Marine Corps said it best, to paraphrase: If you ask me my opinion, I don’t want DADT changed, but if you do change it then by God the Marines will lead the way.  And they will too, just as the Marines have always done, you watch and see if they don’t – one thing about Marines, they give their word, they damned well keep it or die trying.

You know, it’s funny, I often hear the veterans of my generation, and the ones that came before us, disparage the young men and women who serve today.  It’s good natured, mostly.  I guess it’s a right of passage, each generation considers itself better than the ones that come after, their trials are always harder, their triumphs always greater, their failures forgotten, their leaders better (or worse, depending on the nature of the story), and so on.  The kids nowadays just can’t understand what it was like back then, they’re soft, we had it hard not like it is now with your iPods and tongue rings and flush toilets.  I am, of course, as guilty of this viewpoint as any old vet, but, I’m still submerged in the military, and the “kids” who wear the uniform today – and, Goddamn if they don’t look younger every day – they are every bit as good, better in fact, than we ever were. They are smart and proud and gung-ho.  We’ve been fighting two wars for nearly a decade now, hard wars, tough, brutal, against a vicious and tenacious enemy, and yet this generation still volunteers to go, to put their lives on the line, over and over and over again, every single day.

These men and women, the ones who wear the uniform today, are not like we were, just as we were not like our fathers, and our fathers were not like our grandfathers.  The military of today is a new generation.  Their world is not ours. Their war is not ours. The challenges they face out there in the dark and dangerous corners of the world are not the ones I faced, or my dad faced, or my grandfather.  Or John McCain.   The men and women who serve today know what matters, they’re not kids, they’ve been to war – some a half dozen times now – and they know what matters to them.

In the last two weeks I’ve heard the DADT repeal come up in conversation exactly zero times.

Yes that’s correct. Zero.

And I’ve been listening for it.

The vast majority of the military simply doesn’t care.

They care about equipment that works, and intelligence and information that is accurate and reliable, and commanders who won’t waste their lives, and decent pay and benefits, and a schedule that gives them some time with their families between combat deployments, and a Veteran’s Administration that is funded and facilities that are maintained to reasonable levels, and a nation that remembers their sacrifice.  They care that the men and women who guard their flank when the bullets start flying can be trusted and they just don’t care who those people might be sleeping with.

Most of them simply don’t give a flaming bag of shit whether gays are allowed to serve openly or not.

There are issues that will have to be solved. There are.  Just as there were when women and minorities were integrated into the services.  Sensitive issues, the issues of housing and showers and privacy and relationships (both sexual and platonic and perceived) and benefits and who, exactly, is a military dependent.  Regulations will have to be changed, military law has to be changed.  Example: the UCMJ defines sodomy to such a degree that most heterosexuals would have to be prosecuted if military law was applied as written.  There is a significant number of Sailors and Marines who would have to spend time in the brig after every liberty port if the Adultery regulations were actually enforced as written. Military Law is outdated and long overdue for change, and it does have to be changed, it can’t be ignored – just as we couldn’t ignore the question of how to dispose of feminine hygiene products back in the day.   Integrating gays into the military openly will take time, the military will have to change – and it will, because it always does, military culture only appears static, in reality it is constantly reinventing itself – but it’s not as easy as waving your arm and saying “make it so.”  And it’s important to remember that.  Some changes will have to mandated, to change military law will require Congressional and Presidential authorization. It will require training.  Some changes will happen of their own accord, over time.  It will require many, many little changes, not all of which are apparent.

People will have to change.

Especially the old guard. Especially the leadership.

Because, of course, there are those who do care. Who won’t serve with openly gay comrades.  A few will get out, just as some I knew who left the service rather than serve at sea with, or for, women. Just as some did back when African Americans were integrated into the military as equals.  That’s their choice.  Go and good riddance. The world has changed, the military is changing, change with it or be left behind.  Because if you stay, if you choose to wear the uniform, then you are sworn to uphold the orders of the President and the officers appointed over you, whether you agree with those changes or not.  Period and no exceptions.  You held up your right hand and swore an oath. Either your word is good, or it’s not, there is no middle ground.

So help you God.

Oddly though, it’s those who hold God above all things that are having the most trouble with this change. 

I am, of course, talking about the Chaplain Corps.  A majority of which have voiced their opposition to openly gay troops.  Like my shipmate all those years ago who dogmatically maintained that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, many in the Chaplain Corps say that they cannot live up to their oath. These Chaplains, these Christians, say that they cannot minister to those who wear the uniform and serve their country and have sworn to give up their lives, if they are openly gay.  These Chaplains, these so-called men of God, who lay claim to superior virtue and morality, have demanded the right to perform their duty on a case by case basis.  They have demanded the right follow only the rules and regulations and orders they agree with (what if we give military surgeons the same discretion? Pull the thread on that and see where it takes you).  They have demanded that others live a lie so that they don’t have to live up to their oaths, an oath sworn before their country, their service, and their God.   In short, they protest because for them not to live a lie, others must – and they see nothing wrong with this.

I have a simple solution to this dilemma.

If you as a military chaplain, as a matter of conscience, cannot live up to your sworn oath, if you cannot put the orders of the President and the officers appointed over you ahead of the tenets of your religious conviction, if you cannot serve with and minister to both your straight and gay comrades without prejudice, without bigotry, without judgment, then you can get the fuck out. 

It’s really just that simple.

Resign your commission and get out. Now. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass.  You’re officers, either start acting like officers or take off the uniform.

However, should you choose to stay, well then you have two choices:

1) Speak up. Refuse to stay silent. Refuse to minister to gay Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, or Guardsmen. Stand pat on principle. Do not allow the government or the military to dictate your beliefs, convictions, lifestyle, or relationships.

At which point you will be immediately separated from the service via Administrative Discharge.  Goodbye and good luck.


2) You can keep silent and do the job you swore to do.  We won’t ask you about your hypocrisy, and you don’t tell anybody.

We’ll call it Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. 

You think it’s such a good idea? You think it’s fair? You think it’s moral and just? You live with it.

Seventeen years from now, we’ll come back and see how it worked out for you.


  1. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Your skill at hitting the proverbial nail on the head continues to impress. Would that there was the same degree of sanity within the administration that will ultimately have to change the code. I foresee a vast quantity of weaseling and gibberish emerging from both Congress and the Pentagon over the next couple of years whilst reality continues to pass them both by.

  2. I am so glad this matter is resolved, and I have to say - the Smart Sailor and his lesbian sister are glad the matter is resolved, as well. They both have realistic expectations about how tough this sea change is going to be in the short term, but really - neither of them give a good goddamn about who sleeps with who.

    From the mouths of teenagers...

  3. What's left to say...Amen to that brother!

  4. I originally found your site looking for tips on turning lathe bowls/vessels and found a well written intelligent blog to boot. Thanks!

  5. Thanks, Matt, welcome aboard.

    If you click on the
    things I do in the shop
    link in the subject cloud over there on the right, you'll get a list of posts dealing with woodworking, most of which are about turning in one form or another.

  6. That's because those same chaplains, the ones complaining, are also the ones who felt they were so close to making the military an Army of God.

    Can I run them out on a rail? No, really, these are people who would have a problem administering to anyone who doesn't share their faith. They aren't chaplains, they're evangelists. It's the opposite of what a chaplain is supposed to be.

  7. Steve, I believe you are absolutely correct. A large number of the Chaplain Corps is now made up of evangelicals and they are indeed hell bent on making the military into Christian Soldiers Marching As To War. I think you put your finger right on it when you said that was precisely the opposite of what a chaplain is supposed to be. Well said.

  8. Excellent post, as usual. (Although, if I may, I did cringe a bit at the "with a menstruating woman for God’s sake" parenthetical, as -- although funny -- it seemed to give credence to that sort of biased thinking that said women were too emotionally unstable to serve in the first place.)

  9. Which is precisely why I used the phrase, NZ. The best offense against bigotry and entrenched stereotypes is laughter.

  10. Well, that's what you SAY... but I'm sure that if I was menstruating right now I'd rip your head off. ;)

  11. I knew this job was dangerous when I took it.

  12. Great post, Jim. From my days in uniform I can well remember when DADT became the "new" policy. The reaction from the great majority of my shipmates was "meh." I found that, by and large, the sailors whose sexual orientation was deemed less than desirable by the DoD tended to be better Sailors. I always figured it had a lot to do with the additional level of sacrifice they were required to live with. You really had to WANT to be there and accept the military as a calling in order to live with that level of discrimination.

    Speaking of accepting the military life as a calling, I think that's the basic issue with the supposed moral quandary that military chaplains are faced with. First off, I think that the great majority of chaplains face no quandary, simply because they understood the differences between a military ministry and a civilian one, and accepted those differences as a part of their calling to minister. Those who do face a quandary are simply guilty of swearing a false oath and entering the service under false pretenses.

    The DoD requires chaplain candidates to understand and accept the pluralistic faith requirements of the military community and to obtain an ecclesiastical endorsement from their home faith that specifies the applicant's physical and mental suitability for, not only military service, but the unique requirements of a military ministry. In short, candidates are to understand that some practices that may be widely practiced as part of their own faith's ministry in civilian life will not be acceptable in a military setting. Proselytizing, evangelizing, sermon topics that are contrary to or not supportive of DoD policy and discriminatory or exclusionary behavior as part of a ministry are all forbidden to military chaplains. Make no mistake, these are enormous differences in practice when compared to civilian ministry, but they're aware of the requirements before they raise their right hands. If they have entered military service with the intent to engage in these practices regardless of regulation, then they have no business being in uniform. The repeal of DADT really has no net effect on the requirements put on a military chaplain. Chaplains of a particular faith have NEVER been allowed to counsel members of another faith that they are religiously misguided because their religious beliefs contradict the teachings of the chaplain's faith. If the chaplain's own moral compass dictates that they must engage in this practice, then they are mentally unsuited to a military ministry. The same guidlines apply to a chaplain ministering to a LGBT service member. If your adherence to your faith prevents you from performing your sworn duties, then get the fuck out of the service and make room for someone who is suited to the life and sacrifices all military members make, chaplains included.

    The recent comments by a group of retired chaplains to congress and the Secretary of Defense, the comments made by the catholic Archbishop of the diocese of the military (a papal appointee who has no military service himself) and others are nothing more than fear mongering and the advancement of a political, rather than spiritual, agenda. The only difference between those individuals and Fred Phelps is in the marketability of the message. No matter how nice, seemingly moral or reasonable the words sound, the message is the same "God hates fags" hatred and lunacy promulgated by Phelps and his WBC crazies.

    The great majority of military chaplains will march on and continue their ministry with nary a missed beat. The great shame is that the reason and compassion of these much needed professional officers are being drowned out by the loud bleating of a few incorrigible bigots.

  13. That's my spin on it too, Vagabond, and precisely what I was aiming at when I mentioned giving your word as your bond. These officers took an oath that specifically required them to pledge their service without mental reservation or for the purpose of evasion: they lied. Pure and simple their oath is a lie, their word is a lie, and they are cowardly scumbags who don't understand honor, duty, or commitment. They should be stripped of their commission and given a dishonable discharge forthwith.

  14. My original, before editing post had language like courts martial and dishonorable discharge, but the more I though about how much fun draconian measures would be, the more I came to the realization that those measures would only produce martyrs and cause more dissension. I think the end result of that would be to create a host of problems that would end up being blamed en masse on teh gay.

    As fun and poetic as it would be to see the craven bastards get ass-pounded at Leavenworth for a few years, I think the better resolution is to administratively separate them.

    As all chaplains enter the service as lieutenants or captains (O-3) and Lieutenant Commander or Major (O-4) is pretty much an automatic promotion for them, I'll find it fascinating to see how many chaplains are willing to give up their assured federal pensions for the sake of their moral compass. In the military, they actually have it pretty easy as far as building a ministry. They don't have the business responsibilities a civilian pastor has, they don't have to build a congregation, hire associate pastors or other staff, worry about the million little things that go with administering a real life church. They basically have to show up, speak up and clean up. Granted, they can have to go to some awful places, have to deploy, face the rigors of field life, etc. but their existence is pretty linear, unlike a civilian minister. My guess is that many of them felt "the calling" of a military ministry for just that reason, as many military members do in all career fields. You watch, this is a tempest in a teapot. After the first few admin seps, this will cease to be an issue.

  15. Oh yes, lest I forget, HAPPY NEW YEAR to you and yours!

  16. Jim,
    Great post. That sure did bring up old memories. If I recall, we didn't melt after DADT became regulation. We went on with the mission and moved forward. BTW do you remember how that shipmate would flip out when the INXS song Devil Inside played on the cover music? Happy New Year.

  17. Vagabond, happy new year to you and yours as well. Thanks!

    Sean, heh, I'd forgotten about the INXS bit. Good times, good times.

  18. Clap!Clap!Clap!Clap!Clap!Clap!Clap!

  19. I am a member of the armed forces, and I couldn't agree with you more! Nobody cares. This is a non-issue as far as I'm concerned. Who you sleep with is to be left to your own bedroom, if you'll pick up a weapon and defend the constitution next to me, you're good in my book. Of course, as you covered, there's always the one who has been saved by Jesus that just can't stand next to the individual that is different. Thank you for the read and please don't label me a troll because I'm posting anonymously! ;-)

  20. You only get tagged as a troll if you act like a troll, anon ;)

  21. Well I can say from experience that not every chaplain is of the Praise-god-who-brought-fire-on-Sodom-and-Gomorrah type (of course i know you were not implying an absolute, but i am giving an example): My grandfather was a chaplain for 32 years and served in Vietnam, and he has always supported equal rights for all, he even headed the Naval Race Relations Program in the early 70's. He was very pleased when DADT was rolled back, and I think There must still be SOME reasonable people in the Chaplain's Corps like him still around, and these bigoted new folks must really . On a different note, i enjoy reading your blog very much, and i must say that as well as my grandfather my mother and father are retired Navy Captains and both have only said the best things of Warrant officers. You people do great work! Farewell, and Go Navy!

  22. Oops i meant to say "piss them off" after really


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