Thursday, November 21, 2002
Whhhewwww. It was a close call, but the nation can breathe another sigh of relief.
The threat has been extinguished.
Nine soldiers who attended a training center in Monterey, including at least six who speak Arabic, have been discharged by Army storm troopers.
Suspected spies? No. Terrorist collaborators? No. But they threatened to undermine military unity and national security nonetheless.
The nine were dismissed over several months, but the news of their discharge couldn''t have been better timed.
There was the contemptible Osama bin Laden again last week, or so the experts seem to think, speaking to us from who-knows-what cave. I still get a shiver when the FBI warns in dire terms, as it did Thursday, that intelligence "chatter" suggests Al Qaeda is planning another "spectacular" attack.
Didn''t the first one happen at least partly because of a shortage of intelligence personnel to intercept and interpret such chatter? And if so, is this any time to worry about the sexual orientation of someone who might help save our lives?
Alastair Gamble, 24, got the heave-ho in August. He speaks pretty good Arabic, but was kind enough to tell me his story in English.
He was inspired to enlist after internships at two Navy sites, including one in an intelligence unit. The Navy wouldn''t take him because of a vision problem.
But he had studied Latin and German while earning a college degree, and the Army put him on track for the Defense Language Institute.
In basic training, Gamble says, he qualified as marksman on the M-16. At DLI, he got a letter of commendation.
"Sept. 11 certainly made me more committed to the military. At least, I became more committed to learning the language," says Gamble.
"I remember listening to some taped interviews of Osama bin Laden in class right after the attacks and picking up words and phrases, even at that early stage in the course."
But last spring, in the middle of the night, he got a visit that would end his military career.
Gamble had been seeing another soldier in the language school, and because Robert Hicks was about to graduate and move on, they risked a night together in Gamble''s room.
"At 3:30am, we both woke to the fire alarm in my building," Gamble says, "and a knocking at the door announcing a surprise ''health and welfare'' inspection."
Gamble bought some time while Hicks tried to climb out the window, but a sergeant was waiting outside. Get these "inspectors" to Baghdad immediately. Saddam won''t stand a chance.
The two were marched off for questioning while three platoon sergeants searched Gamble''s room. He says they turned up a gay-themed movie, some photos of him and Hicks, and his journal.
Gamble knew they were goners. Under the military''s "don''t ask, don''t tell" policy toward gays - established by a president who wrote the book on artful deception - the discharge process would begin.
"I can''t tell you how many people, once I was outed, came up to me and said, ''I don''t agree with your lifestyle, but what this comes down to is whether I would share a foxhole with you, and I would.''"
I''m not sure whether to laugh or cry over what happened next. While awaiting his discharge, Gamble says, the Army took note of his command of Arabic and assigned him to work as a substitute teacher in the program from which he''d just been dismissed.
UC Santa Barbara''s Aaron Belkin, who runs a study of sexual minorities in the military, says there is no evidence that 23 foreign militaries have low morale or "unit cohesion" problems due to the presence of openly gay soldiers.
"It''s the gay ban itself that undermines national security," Belkin says, "because in the midst of the most dire shortage of language experts in history, the military has gone out of its way to fire its best linguistic students."
Seven of the nine gay linguists who studied in Monterey came forward on their own over several months, saying there was an atmosphere of hostility toward gays.
The other two, Gamble and Hicks, 28, relocated to Maryland.
With a jittery nation on yellow alert, Gamble''s language skills are being wasted while he tries to figure out a new career.
But there''s still some soldier in him, and he refuses to blame the military for going by the book.
"I must make it clear that I am not interested in people feeling sorry for me or apologizing for what happened. I knew the possible outcome of my actions, and I will face the consequences," he says.
"I am simply asking the question, ''Why continue to enforce this policy when it is such a clear detriment to military proficiency? At a time when the military wants to be very efficient, it is being forced to throw away its assets."
I don''t want them thrown away.
Gay, straight, short, tall, young, old, it doesn''t matter. Anyone who can help protect us from killers, sign them up and put them to work.
I wonder if the best way to bag Bin Laden is to convince the Army he''s got a boyfriend.
Steve Lopez writes for the Los Angeles Times.