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RADM Jamie Barnett, Retired

"Don't Ask Don't Tell"

Denny Meyer

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 sexual orientation.

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 Pentagon respond?

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 this?

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 get?

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 opinion?

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 policy?

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 move forward.

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 under DADT.

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 it.

© 2008 Gay Military Signal