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End sought to military’s ban on gays

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers called Thursday for an end to the Pentagon’s ban on gays in the military, citing findings in a government report that the prohibition hurts recruiting and retention even as the war in Iraq strains the military’s ability to maintain its troop strength.

A Government Accountability Office study, released Wednesday, found that since 1993, the Department of Defense had spent at least $191 million to recruit and train replacements for almost 10,000 service members discharged under the ban — including more than 300 with critical language skills. On Thursday, Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., prepared to offer a bill that would end the Pentagon’s 12-year-old policy, known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

“The conventional justification for ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ has been that allowing gays to serve undermines military readiness,” Meehan said. “Now we have the numbers to prove that the policy itself is undermining our military readiness.”

The prohibition on gays in the military is a long-standing principle of military law. But in an effort to keep a campaign promise to lift the ban, President Clinton established “don’t ask, don’t tell” in early 1993. Under the policy, the military is not allowed to ask about sexual orientation and service members are not to reveal it. If the fact that they are gay becomes public, service members can be discharged.

Although Meehan’s measure is unlikely to be approved under the Bush administration, the renewed challenge to the prohibition on gay service members marked the latest, and perhaps most creative, effort to improve the military’s ability to fill its ranks as it strains to keep up troop strength for military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Army National Guard is 24 percent below its recruitment goal for the past four months, and the Army Reserves are 7 percent down. The Marines failed to meet their goal in January for the first time since before the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Pentagon officials continue to insist that they expect to meet their annual goals by Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year.

The war in Iraq has offered potential recruits an increasingly stark choice between almost certain combat duty and an expanded array of career options in an improving economy. Candidates for what was once weekend and summer duty in the Guard or Reserves are less likely to join now, analysts said.