By FRANCO ORDONEZ
The Charlotte Observer
COLUMBIA, S.C. – Later this month, openly gay men and women will be able to serve in the U.S. military.
At Fort Jackson, it’s Capt. Guy Allsup’s job to ensure that recruits in Charlie Company now realize a soldier is a soldier: gay or straight.
Last week, the 29-year-old Charlotte Country Day graduate walked 231 nervous basic training recruits through scenarios.
Soldiers won’t be asked their sexual orientation. After Sept. 20, they won’t be kicked out of the armed services simply for acknowledging they are gay. Hand-holding and other forms of public affection on base won’t be tolerated. That goes for a guy and girl, or a guy and a guy.
“Does anybody think that this is going to be a drastic change for deployed soldiers?” Allsup called out to the group.
“No, sir,” they yelled.
“Someone give me a reason why not,” Allsup said.
Pvt. Umberto Werner, 18, of Fayetteville, Ga., stood at attention. He looked straight ahead, clutching his M-16.
“Sexual orientation has nothing to do with our mission, sir,” he said.
“I’ll buy that,” replied Allsup.
Sessions like these are happening at military bases across the Carolinas, the U.S., and in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Pentagon says it has already trained more than 2 million men and women in uniform.
The 18-year-old policy expires after years of emotionally charged debate about whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve in the military. Some troops say the repeal could be a distraction on the battlefield; others contend it violates their personal and religious beliefs.
Recent interviews with troops at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, and Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, reflect the mix of emotions about ending “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
About 14,000 gay service members have been discharged since “don’t ask, don’t tell” was enacted in 1993. But soon, gays and lesbians will no longer have to hide their sexual orientation or pretend they’re straight.
They will still lack some benefits. Gay couples will not be eligible to live in family housing or receive health benefits for their partners because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act passed in 1996.
Pvt. Brandon Eleby, 19, of Durham, N.C., was raised by his godmother, who is gay. He echoed other recruits, who said the change is less dramatic for their generation, which has grown up with a more high-profile gay community.
“I never saw it as a big deal,” said Eleby, who graduated this spring.
Allsup, a UNC Charlotte graduate, served 14 months in Iraq. While stationed in Sadr City, one of the most dangerous parts of Baghdad, Allsup said a member of his unit came out to him.
“At one point, he said, `Hey, Guy, I’m homosexual,”‘ Allsup recalled. “I said, `Got it.’ And we moved on.”
Knowing the soldier was gay, Allsup said, made no difference in their relationship.
`You feel like a new person’
Many gay soldiers will finally be able to serve without fear of losing their jobs, current and former service members say.
“I’ve looked forward to this day since the day that I raised my hand and joined the service,” said a 42-year-old captain at Fort Bragg. “I lost a seven-year relationship when I joined the Army. `Don’t ask, don’t tell’ played a huge role in the end of the relationship.”
The captain, who asked that his name not be used because the policy is in effect until Sept. 20, said he will no longer need to censor himself when he talks about weekend plans or is asked whether he and his “wife” would like to come over for dinner.
“That feeling of a burden is going away,” said Jonathan Hopkins, a former Army captain who was honorably discharged in August 2010. “It’s like carrying a heavy rucksack for 20 miles. You feel like a new person when you take it off.”
Hopkins, who is on the board of OutServe, a network of anonymous gay service members, said training sessions like those conducted at Fort Jackson have been professional.
The anxiety surrounding the end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is similar to that felt in 1976, when the first women enrolled at the military academies, said Aubrey Sarvis, the executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
“Some thought it would be the fall of West Point and the Naval Academy,” he said. “They’re still standing.”
Marines `most resistant’
A Pentagon survey of 115,000 service members last year found that 70 percent of U.S. troops said gay men and lesbians who are out could serve without a negative effect. Thirty percent predicted “concerns about the impact of a repeal.”
Of all services, the Marine Corps has least welcomed the repeal. In the survey, nearly 60 percent of Marine respondents said their unit’s effectiveness “in a field environment or out at sea” would be negatively affected by repeal.
A Marine corporal who is based at Camp Lejeune but deployed to Afghanistan said she was not surprised by the survey results.
The 23-year-old Charlotte, N.C., high school graduate, who is co-leader of the N.C. chapter of OutServe, estimates there are about 400 gay or lesbian Marines based at Camp Lejeune, near Jacksonville, N.C.
In email interviews, she said she came out to her unit and hasn’t felt any backlash. Some asked why she hadn’t come out sooner, and told her: “I have tons of girls that I can introduce you to.”
She said Marines are more accepting of a female who is a lesbian, but the majority of Marines are men and they have a tougher time accepting a male Marine who is gay.
“In their eyes, male Marines are `manly,”‘ she said. “They are brothers and should not be involved with homosexual conduct.”
Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos was one of the most vocal opponents, arguing it could be a distraction at a time of war. But during congressional hearings, Amos said Marines would follow the law.
“I want to be clear to all Marines: We will step out smartly to faithfully implement this new law,” Amos said in a training video.
Religion still an issue
After a full day of drills in 90-degree heat at Fort Jackson, the members of Charlie Company filed into the large classroom with cement walls. Most of the soldiers are in their late teens and early 20s.
Allsup and 1st Sgt. Joseph Mulready, who helped conduct the training session, acknowledged that some of their recruits may be uncomfortable around gay soldiers. Recruits were told they are free to believe what they want, but cannot let their beliefs infringe on their duties.
There were a few chuckles during the nearly two-hour class. A couple of recruits were ordered to the back of the room for calisthenics after falling asleep. But most listened attentively, clutching their M-16s, and stood at attention when answering Allsup’s questions about religious differences, discrimination and sexual harassment.
Pfc. Jessica Reyes, 22, asked whether the change in policy would be grounds to be released after Sept. 20, because she and others signed their Army contracts when “don’t ask, don’t tell” was in effect. After the session, she said some recruits discussed whether they could leave the Army because the repeal violated their religious beliefs.
Allsup told the recruits that when they joined the Army they “gave up the ability to be different from the crowd”- a civilian. They signed up to be soldiers, he said. They signed up to accept the ethical and moral foundation that governs the Army.
“Did anyone raise their hand and say, `I swear I will only serve under `don’t ask, don’t tell?”‘
“No, sir,” they yelled.