RADM Jamie Barnett,
"Don't Ask Don't Tell"
Rear Admiral Jamie Barnett,
Jr. Retired, noted that his enlightenment began when his high school became
integrated during his sophomore year in his native Mississippi. For him, that
moment of progress led to respect, understanding, and greater opportunities for
both black and white students to succeed. Reading that, from a man who had spent
his earlier schooling in segregated southern schools, I suddenly wondered if the
man I was about to interview was black or white. It was not simply the
egalitarianism of his recollection, but also the fact that in our American
military today, he could be either. It does not stop there, of course; as RADM
Steinman and Generals Richard and Kerr demonstrate, a flag officer can also be
gay these days. Well, actually, Lt. General Friedrich Von Steuben, who served in
the American Revolution, was the first of those. What is new is that, although
General George Washington was not known to have said a word about the issue,
today we have honorable leaders such as Admiral Barnett, who is heterosexual,
speaking out about equality for all Americans in our armed forces, regardless of
At the University of Mississippi, where he
studied Political Science, Jamie Barnett earned his commission through the NROTC
program; and later he became an assistant professor of Naval Science there. In
all, he served 32 years of active and reserve duty; with his final active
assignment as Deputy Commander of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, with
9,000 sailors serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Throughout his career, at all
levels of command, he made it his mission, in keeping with our American military
values, to make certain that discrimination of any sort would not be tolerated
among the troops under his direction. In his retirement message, he urged the
repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) law.
Shortly after his retirement
in June of this year, he wrote an op-ed article in
the Washington Post which
began with his pointing out that America's safety and security depends on the
estimated 65,000 gay men and lesbians serving in our armed forces today.
Gay Military Signal spoke with RADM Barnett
on September 29, a few days after he spoke in favor of the repeal of DADT on a
panel at the University of Mississippi which preceded the Presidential
candidate's debate there between Senators Obama and McCain.
Gay Military Signal (GMT): Many senior
retired officers have said that DADT repeal will not be passed unless there is
Pentagon support or at least neutrality. What is your view? How will the
Jamie Barnett: The Pentagon will support
whatever the law is. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Michael Mullen has said,
"DADT is currently the law and we are going to follow it; but if the law
changes we'll follow that law." I think that is the right view. I find that
among senior officers that is more and more the tolerant attitude. I do think itís
important that senior officers in the military are thinking ahead on this, and I
think they are. They are thinking about what will happen when, what I think is
inevitable, the law changes to be more fair.
My perception is that they (the Pentagon) are
not going to testify on the policy matter. They would be against a change, but
I'm sure they would provide information on how it is currently operating and
what their projections are of how it might be (if the law changed).
They are more likely to remain as neutral as
possible and only provide statistical information on what may happen and what
steps may need to be taken if itís changed.
GMS: In your Washington
Post article you wrote that, "It is the responsibility of senior
military commanders to advise our nation's leaders on how law and policy affect
military readiness." So, in fact, you said there, that they are responsible
for informing Congress on HOW the policy change would affect readiness, rather
than whether the policy SHOULD be changed.
JB: Right, and right now, I think if they look
at the statistics, and if Congress asks, they are going to have to say, "We
really cannot do without the 65,000 gay or lesbian service members currently
serving on active duty. It (the policy) is costing us a lot of money and we have
discharged over 800 people with critical skills and knowledge that cannot be
replaced by just going out and recruiting a brand new person off the
street." We have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on throwing out gays
and lesbians who want to serve and we've had to spend hundreds of millions more
training people to replace them.
GMS: It is estimated that a full brigade,
3500-4000, gay senior enlisted personnel leave each year by not re-enlisting
each year, due to no longer wanting to hide who they are....
JB: Itís not something they want to do. Itís
a loss to the nation. And it is a personal loss for people who want to serve.
GMS: Congressman Barney Frank,
when asked about DADT repeal, said that the issue actually is not about military
readiness but rather about fairness, suggesting that the 65,000 number is not
significant, what is relevant, he said, was fairness. In your Washington Post
article, you began by saying that our nation's security depends, among others,
on these 65,000 gay and lesbian troops currently serving. Are we in fact
significant to readiness?
JB: To me there are two major reasons to do
this (repeal DADT). One is that the current policy is patently unfair to members
who have volunteered, are serving, and are sacrificing in our military. For that
major purpose, it does not matter if itís only one person; if itís unfair,
we ought to change it. That may be his point. But, the other reason - I do think
itís the right thing for the military. That's where it does come into
readiness. One of the reasons I want to talk about this and have the
conversation with senior military people, senior enlisted leaders, and veterans
is because if it only remains a fairness issue it may not get the traction
needed with the populace. But, we need to see that there is a cost, an
individual cost, but also a national cost in skills, in people, in our
relationship with other militaries - and we have said we need to work more
closely with our allies, the large majority of whom have gays and lesbians - we
are working in Iraq and Afghanistan with other militaries who have openly gay
and lesbian service members. Obviously our service men and women need to work
with those other military members, and they are! We are getting along just fine
with them. I haven't heard any incidents in which we've had a problem of our
military people having some problem with a gay or lesbian member of another
military. We have hundreds of thousands of DoD civilians (some of whom are gay)
working here, working abroad all over the world and in Iraq and Afghanistan; no
problem! The FBI, the CIA, on and on, have no restrictions (on sexual
orientation); no problems. So, to me, it is a readiness issue.
GMS: In interviews with lesbian and gay vets
for GMT's Profiles in Patriotism, I've heard of instances particularly aboard
Naval vessels, of non discrimination polices that seemed to imply that there
were some commands that were trying to support the continued service of their
gay personnel, although perhaps it was only the enlisted superior who were doing
JB: The only reports I've
heard about are various places in the military where it was not considered fair
by the commander and/or when it was revealed that an individual was gay or
lesbian, and that person's service and skills were so valued that the commanding
officer didn't even want to think about anything that would cause them to have
to leave the service. One of those, I think, was Sgt. Darren Manzella who came
out on 60 Minutes. He came out to his unit months and months before
anything was in the press about it, and there was simply no problem.
GMS: The media continues to portray gay people
with negative stereotypes that contradict the fact that in the military,
particularly, gay service members are indistinguishable from their straight
counterparts. Do you feel itís necessary for us to vigorously counter those
stereotypes in order to advocate the repeal of DADT? Is it necessary to do this
to counter arguments that gays affect unit moral and cohesion, for example?
JB: We have to fight stereotypes wherever they
arise. And many of the people who make those stereotypical assumptions are
people who have not had any contact with gays and lesbians in the military. I
think they would be surprised at the amount of unit cohesion (in units with
known gay members). I think that those stereotypes belong to another era and
should be left there. The younger people who are in the modern military right
now have been brought up in a much different atmosphere. They have friends who
are gay, went to high schools with gay students; they grew up with positive
images of gay people in the media and literature that were not seen before. They
are used to this and don't find it unusual. What is interesting to me is that as
I've traveled and talked to senior military people, I've asked them what they
think about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and gays and lesbians serving
openly in the military. While not uniform, the average answer is, "You
know, I've talked to my son, to my daughter, to my next door neighbors, and they
don't see any problem with it; and so I don't think I have any problem with it
either." That is why I think the change is inevitable.
GMS: How many of those senior flag officers
are likely to express that view officially and in discussions in the Pentagon,
as opposed to just saying it casually?
JB: That's an interesting question. One of the
aspects of military service that I have always believed in and seen confirmed is
that the bravery of our military under fire is not just from bullets. I think
that if Congress and the President asked them to institute a new regime of gays
and lesbians openly serving, I think the large majority of them could and would
bravely say, "We can make it happen." Some of them may not be happy to
make it happen, but I think they would bravely carry it out.
GMS: You wrote, in the Washington
Post article, that you brought up that issue in 2003. What reaction did you
JB: I'm proud of the tremendous work of the
Navy's Diversity Strategy, which is now being implemented. The Navy now has a
great program to move us toward our diversity goals. There were Navy and
industry personnel working on our mission statement and goals. I brought up that
when we talk about diversity; one of the things I would like to see ultimately
is the Navyís inclusion of sexual orientation in our acceptance of diversity.
We were working with many tough issues, and that seemed like a tougher one in
that it was assumed, in 2003, that the administration would not act on anything
like that. So the discussion was dropped almost immediately.
GMS: How important, would you say, is the
polling data of a few years ago in which a Zogby poll found that some three
quarters of Iraq and Afghanistan combat vets said they had no concern about
serving alongside gay service members?
JB: I think it is crucially important. We have
to emphasize the fact that the American public and the large majority of the
American military just don't see a problem. I don't discount the capability of a
small minority to make a significant fuss about it. We need to overcome that by
careful planning, education, training and socialization, the way that we do with
a lot of other things in the military. We train to be ready. We need to start
incorporating that type education in our diversity training, and in boot camp.
GMS: How helpful to achieving the repeal of
DADT, by changing attitudes, was the public coming out several years ago of
three flag officers, Admiral Steinman and Generals Richard and Kerr; compared to
straight officers such as yourself speaking out, in influencing Pentagon
JB: The important thing is that we are having
the dialogue. Previously, I sensed that there was just a pall over the whole
subject that military officers couldn't discuss it, it was just a law, and they
wanted to stay away from it. And now that we are having an open discussion, itís
very healthy to gets the facts out so members of Congress and senior military
officers can start thinking about it. This sunshine on the subject allows a
healthy, balanced discussion.
GMS: In light of the fact that it is now known
that there are submariners, seals, and all sorts of personnel in all services
serving openly among their peers, without morale or cohesion problems, would you
agree that it is a significant change of attitude that would enable a change of
JB: The fact that we have so many gays and
lesbians serving in the military in all situations, in the field and in
submarines, is a significant factor as we go forward. The greatest objection
that I hear for gays and lesbians serving openly in the military is the cramped
quarters and the issue of unit cohesion. I think we can debunk the myth of gays
and lesbians somehow undermining unit cohesion; that simply is not the case. We
have case after case where it has been demonstrated that unit cohesion is great
even after gay service members come out. "Cramped quarters" is an
issue with some people. It isn't an issue for me, in that gays and lesbians are
already serving in such situations. In fact it might be preferable if they
served openly. As it is an issue to some, as we implement a new law that allows
open service and requires non-discrimination against gays, we have to think how
to socialize that just as was done with women and African Americans (having been
integrated into military units). I'm positive it can be done. It wasn't easy at
first. We had to convince some people. We'll do this too.
GMS: How, in fact, would the transition work
once the order goes out as mandated by Congress repealing DADT? Some countries
simply had abrupt change, while others carefully planned for the change; how
would it happen here?
JB: Speaking just for me, I think as we
move toward changing the law, there needs to be military planning about how it
would be implemented. We need to change, as quickly as possible, our training on
diversity to incorporate sexual orientation as a part of the education on
understanding and tolerance which we give service members at all levels. I would
hope as quickly as possible, as we see the law changing, that we put a
moratorium on any administrative separations. We have to plan how the military
will evaluate those who have been separated who would like to come back and
complete their careers. And the military is good at planning.
GMS: Would you say itís important, in
establishing rules regulations regarding such a change, to emphasize that gay
and lesbian personnel would be expected to adhere to the same standards as
others must now adhere to?
JB: Itís a good point. I don't know that
specific statements would be needed regarding that. There may be places where we
need to look at the UCMJ to make sure expectations are applied evenly. But, the
thing is that we already have articles in the books that would prevent
misconduct such as fraternization. I don't think it would matter whether you are
gay or lesbian or not. I am very interested in making sure that the provision in
House Resolution 1246 (repealing DADT), that does not allow discrimination
against gays and lesbians, is enacted. I think that is centrally important as we
GMS: What advice would you give the
organizations advocating DADT repeal in being most effective in gaining
Congressional and perhaps Pentagon support?
JB: The next step is getting sponsors in the
Senate. Itís amazing how responsive members of Congress can be with even a few
letters and getting facts. I think personal letters to our elected
representatives and visits can be effective in asking for support for this. I
might add, we are looking for bipartisan support, this cuts across party lines;
itís an imperative issue for all Americans. I would hope we see a bill soon in
the Senate that has bipartisan support.
GMS: How do you think the repeal issue would
play out with each of the Presidential candidates, Navy Veteran Senator McCain,
and Senator Obama?
JB: Senator McCain is a fair-minded person who
would be open to discussing it even though he's expressed his desire not to deal
with it at this time. Senator Obama has expressly stated that with him, it is
only a question of "when and how" not "if." I think he wants
to move ahead, as he does with most things, with quickly studying what the best
way to do it would be and then enacting something as soon as possible.
GMS: For the sake of inclusiveness, and the
fact that they have been included in other countries, what about transgender
service? A recent TAVA survey revealed that transgender service members are
being discriminated against because some commands mistakenly discharge them
JB: I personally feel that they should be
included and allowed to serve openly. As with other groups that might be
affected as we repeal DADT, there may be issues that we need to work through.
And what I say is, "Letís move on and start working through them."
GMS: Today's news, in the New
York Sun, notes that the issue of allowing ROTC on campus is again being
considered at Columbia University where itís been banned since the Vietnam
War, most recently because the program does not comply with non discrimination
considerations. How do you see this issue?
JB: This goes back to the readiness issue.
DADT does not just affect gays and lesbians. It also affects heterosexuals. Our
recruiting of heterosexuals is affected by the fact that it is perceived as
unfair to their own friends and those they would otherwise serve with. Thus,
this is another reason to end the DADT policy. Once it is gone, I think Columbia
University can make its own decision as to whether there will be an ROTC unit
there or not. But it goes down to the basic fairness question and how the
fairness question affects recruiting and retention.
||GMS: Closing comments?
JB: Through the entire history of our
country, in fits and starts, American freedoms and liberty have been
extended, expanded. In this generation we need to expand it and open our
consciousness to the fact that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is a
bellwether issue of whether the American Revolution can continue and
extend these freedoms and the ability to serve to gays and lesbians. Itís
time, and I would like to see the American Revolution continue.
GMS: A final question: Why is this so
important to you, what motivates you
to speak out about DADT?
JB: I grew up in the
segregated south in the 1960s. And I was a beneficiary of Brown vs. Board of
Education, the Supreme Court case that was decided in the year I was born
but not implemented until I was a sophomore in high school in Mississippi.
Because of that, because of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall,
Medger Evers, and others, I had the opportunity to step across the divide and
find out that African Americans were people just like me and to see all the
things we have in common. It profoundly affected the way that I look at human
rights and the denigration of any minority; and it affected my approach to it to
the point that it has a special meaning to me when I take the oath, that every
military person does, to support and defend the Constitution of the United
States against all enemies foreign and domestic. So, that was one reason why,
when I finally perceived that gays and lesbians were truly being discriminated
against while they are serving, both my wife and I wanted to do something about
© 2008 Gay Military Signal