January 5, 2011 in Nation/World

Captain fired, but issues remain

Videos underscore military’s challenge
David S. Cloud Tribune Washington bureau
 

WASHINGTON – The Navy’s decision Tuesday to relieve an aircraft carrier captain of his command over videos he produced containing anti-gay slurs highlights the difficulty the military faces in adapting its culture now that gays and lesbians will be allowed to serve openly for the first time.

The videos made by Capt. Owen Honors were broadcast aboard the USS Enterprise four years ago, when Honors was serving as the vessel’s second in command. But the crude and mocking references reflect an insensitivity toward gays and lesbians that remains prevalent in some parts of the military, according to some current and former service members.

“Most U.S. military units, especially those in combat, are kind of hyper-macho,” said a former U.S. Army infantry officer who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “In that environment, it’s not uncommon to hear homophobic slurs that would be unacceptable in larger societal discourse.”

Adm. John Harvey, head of the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command in Norfolk, Va., made no reference to the slurs in the videos while announcing the decision to remove Honors from command Tuesday.

“His profound lack of good judgment and professionalism while previously serving as executive officer on Enterprise calls into question his character and completely undermines his credibility to continue to serve effectively in command,” Harvey told reporters.

Pentagon officials admit that overcoming such attitudes – or at least punishing them when they surface – has become a matter of more pressing urgency since Congress last month repealed the 17-year-old law that bars gays and lesbians from serving openly in the ranks.

Repeal of the law does not take effect until Pentagon officials certify that it will not harm military readiness, a delay meant in part to give the services time to conduct diversity training and take other steps to ease the integration of gays and lesbians.

Pentagon officials say they cannot predict how long it will be before the repeal will take effect, though they say it is one of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ top priorities.

But creating an environment in which gays and lesbians feel comfortable throughout the military may take years, after years during which anti-gay attitudes have been at least tolerated in some units, current and former officials say.

The videos reflect a “coarse atmosphere” that sometimes exists in the military, said Peter Feaver, a former National Security Council aide under President George W. Bush. These are the “cultural points of friction” that the military will have to contend with as the ban on gays serving openly in the military is lifted, he added.

Some officers said Tuesday that the comments and attitudes in the videos have long been unacceptable, especially among senior officers.

“Those kinds of comments were inappropriate even before the law was repealed,” said Col. Dave Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman.

Former Navy officer Pete Clarke, who served with Honors, defended him and the videos in an appearance Tuesday on NBC’s “Today” show.

Clarke questioned why the Navy decided to take action against Honors now, four years after the videos were produced. “I don’t think it is fair at all,” said Clarke. “I think the political correctness of the Navy needs to be checked on this.”

It’s not uncommon for the Navy to fire commanders, both for personal indiscretions and ship-handling blunders. Last year, Navy Capt. Holly Graf was relieved of command aboard the USS Cowpens for “cruelty and maltreatment” toward her crew, according to an inspector general’s report. The commanding officer of the guided-missile destroyer USS Truxtun, Timothy R. Weber, was relieved for having a romantic relationship with a female officer.

But the Navy only took action against Honors after public disclosure of the videos over the weekend in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, where the carrier is based, even though Navy officials told the publication that they had been previously aware of the content of the videos.

Alongside the macho culture of the military, there is also an emphasis on discipline and personal discretion, which limits the number of incidents in which gays are mocked or subjected to worse treatment, some officers say.

“The military has a masculine and macho culture,” said Aaron Belkin, director of Palm Center at the University of California-Santa Barbara, a think tank on gays and the military. “But the question is not, ‘Does the military have a macho culture?’ It is, ‘Will repeal undermine the miltiary?’ The answer to that is no,” Belkin said.

A Defense Department survey conducted last year of attitudes among service members and their spouses showed that, like American society as a whole, the military has become more accepting of gays and lesbians in recent years. More than 70 percent of those surveyed said they expected little disruption from repeal of the so-called “don’t ask, don’t tell” law.

But some officers still recall an incident from 1999 in which a gay infantryman was beaten to death in his bunk at Fort Campbell, Ky. Trial testimony showed that the victim had been harassed by fellow 101st Airborne Division soldiers over his relationship with a transsexual dancer and former Navy hospital corpsman he met at a local club.

The incident prompted a Pentagon review to investigate the climate of feelings against gays on military bases. A Department of Defense inspector general’s survey of 72,000 troops in 2000 found a “disturbing” level of gay harassment. The report found that 37 percent had witnessed or been targets of gay harassment and 85 percent said that they believe anti-gay comments were tolerated at installations or aboard ships.

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