Monday, May 21 , 2018, 1:03 am | Fair 59º


Harris Sherline: Veterans Speak Out About ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Former soldiers discuss their experiences with gays serving in the military

“When I joined the military it was illegal to be homosexual, then it became optional. I’m getting out before (President Barack) Obama makes it mandatory.” — Gunnery Sgt. Harry Berres, U.S. Marine Corps

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline

Now that the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” has been signed into law, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to see what some of the men I know who served in the military think of the new policy.

Korean War veteran — served as an Army sergeant first class in an Infantry Division, stationed in Japan and Korea, experienced minimal combat

There was only one overtly gay man in our unit. He was very young, about 19, and was a dancer who had worked in the entertainment industry in Hollywood before being drafted.

Although there was a fair amount of comment about him among those who were in the same unit, he was generally treated with a reasonable degree of tolerance. He was never harassed or taunted to my knowledge, and since he was the youngest member of our unit, there was a tendency to look after him. Because of his background, he was assigned to organizing shows (performances) for the troops, which he did quite successfully.

Retired career Army officer (full colonel) — West Point graduate, served 25 years

Ultimately, a consensus — one way or the other — on gay relations in the United States will make this a nonissue. But for now, there is huge disagreement. The military is the wrong venue to push for forced 100 percent acceptance, when there is nowhere near that level of agreement or acceptance in our overall society.

With forced acceptance will come protected status, then prosecution, then force-wide social engineering, then affirmative action. There will be measurements to ensure that a certain percent of our generals are gay, that promotion boards don’t have anti-gay bias. Organizationally, it will be a disaster.

In my experience, at the foxhole level, DADT works pretty well. There’s a certain amount of “mind your own business” when it comes to troops’ lives, so DADT works. I have no doubt that I worked alongside gay soldiers. But there was no flaunting, nothing in my face, no probing from me, no witch hunt. ... DADT just worked. It made for common ground among those who disagreed on the issue, as long as everyone compromised a bit and focused on the military mission.

Every discharge for homosexuality that I knew about was self-reported, by someone who just wanted out of the service. Easier than shooting yourself in the leg. Some I thought to be total fabrications — again, just to leave service.

Ending DADT in the military is just a political battle in the overall war waged by those who want to force Americans to accept perfect equality between heterosexual and homosexual relationships. It will create a discontinuity in the social compact that the military has with our citizens; mothers will have one more reason not to want their sons to don a uniform. It tears the fabric of the small unit, the squad and tank, where living conditions are close and bonding is based on mutual respect of one another’s values and actions.

If ordered to do so, I have no doubt the military will make it work. But it will be ugly, with a much higher price to pay — in lives, careers, unit and personal stress, organizational focus — than any of us can now predict.

Korean War veteran — served in the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division, ended enlistment as sergeant first class

I was at the front lines but experienced no hand-to-hand combat. We were using half-tracks with four machine guns mounted and some with 90mm canons. Mostly we were back of the trench soldiers and firing our guns, not at aircraft, because there were few, but we fired over hills to set encampments on fire, etc.

The “don’t ask, don’t tell” issue is interesting.

While I have generally supported the “no gays in the military,” I am beginning to change my mind because our social world also has changed.

The problem with gays in the military is not the rightness or wrongness of the regulations, but rather the attitude of the men who serve. Being gay was quite unacceptable to some of the men serving at the same time I did. Many of the nongays had a very negative attitude toward gays. Today, however, I think straight younger men are more accepting of gays, in the service or elsewhere.

However, I had never heard of any violence between gays and nongays during my enlistment. Also, I was aware of a number of gay enlisted men and officers during 1951-54, but no one made a big deal of it, and the gays’ affairs weren’t particularly noticeable, and they were discreet.

I doubt that in actual “hand to hand” or close-in combat that being gay would have any influence of the effectiveness of the fighting unit.

The only exception would be if some of the other men in the unit were strongly prejudiced. This is a matter not to be solved by laws, but by educating and convincing all of the soldiers and sailors in our military to accept gays as equals. This will take some doing, but perhaps the time is right for it.

Needless to say, any military person of any orientation who was overtly sexual and bothersome to others should not be allowed in the service.

Enlisted man — served in Germany during Korean War

From my own service experience, the inclusion of homosexuals and lesbians increases the likelihood of poor discipline since any such relationships, up or down the ranks, tend to lead to favoritism in duty assignments, discriminatory punishment for similar wrongdoing.

In one case, the top sergeant in the Headquarters Company gave certain low-rank individuals fancy dinners in his quarters, and sexual approaches were made to the guests. He was a 20-some-year serviceman, and everyone knew about the dinners, etc.

This leads to considerable lack of respect for one in control and leads to other suspicions about the individuals.

It makes you wonder what would happen in a battle situation. Without full and complete trust between individuals in the military, the effectiveness goes away.

In private life, similar situations have developed. Most of the time, the straight people treat these things with humor, but as I have observed on occasion, it leads to dissension and ill feelings. At the same time, I have worked with these individuals, knowing full well what their sexual orientation was, and not experienced any more than the usual results.

My conclusion is that a person can maintain a reasonable relationship with these individuals so long as the favor is returned. From this overall experience, in or out of the military service, I believe that including such individuals in the close atmosphere, as in the service, creates a risk for them and others that is neither beneficial nor necessary.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog,

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