Don't Ask, Don't Be

A Houston-area man leads the fight against the ban on gays in the military

So they're sitting in an armored Hummer in the Mojave, wearing full battle-rattle: uniforms, flak vests, nine-millimeters strapped to the side. Specialist Tommy Cook, his sergeant and a third man are sitting on heavy artillery. Got a few M-4s and M-16s and a .50-caliber machine gun, among others.

It's December 2003, and they're running field-training exercises in anticipation of next month's deployment to Iraq. Right now, they're parked outside the Tactical Operation Center, waiting to get their next assignment, when the gay guy walks by. Twentysomething, short, skinny. We're talking flaming. All three can tell by his walk.

So the sergeant turns to Cook and says, "If I ever found out someone in my crew was gay, I would kill him."

Cook was discharged one month before he was to 
serve in Iraq.
Daniel Kramer
Cook was discharged one month before he was to serve in Iraq.
Moskos: DADT protects the right to privacy.
Courtesy of Northwestern University
Moskos: DADT protects the right to privacy.

Specialist Tommy Cook, sitting shotgun, freezes. His great-great-grandfather, an infantryman, was wounded in battle during the Civil War. His great-grandfather survived combat in World War I. His grandfather was, like Cook, ground-surveillance intelligence, but he never saw combat. Cook, who hails from Lake Jackson, Texas, has come to the conclusion that he will be the first military man in his family to be shot and killed by his own sergeant.

His sergeant is a little guy; five foot seven maybe, 150 pounds. Cook's bigger, but recalling the incident in an e-mail to the Houston Press earlier this month, he wrote, "Now I am much bigger than he is, so size was not an issue. It's not the size of the guy, but how well of a shot he is. I mean he could have [shot] me if we went to Iraq and [I] would have had no defense for a bullet."

Cook knew all he had to do was keep mum about being gay. But he worried about the safety of any other gay soldiers who crossed this sergeant's path. He decided to report the threat to his commanding officer. One month later, Specialist Tommy Cook was honorably discharged after nearly three years of service.

In December 2004, Cook and 11 other service people filed suit against the U.S. government in a Boston district court, demanding their jobs back. They are seeking to eliminate what is known as the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, which can only be done by lifting what is essentially a legislative ban on homosexuals. His isn't the first lawsuit over DADT, but it's the first since the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Lawrence decision, which in 2003 abolished a Texas law criminalizing private, consensual homosexual acts.

The current suit, known as Cook v. Rumsfeld, is the latest in renewed efforts by gay advocacy groups and state and federal legislators to get rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Citing low recruitment numbers and the loss of highly specialized service members, these opponents say DADT is just plain idiotic in time of war. Plus, they say, there's that whole liberty thing, too.

Cook wants the right to take a bullet in the head in Iraq. He just doesn't want it to come from one of his own men.

Last January, Maryland Representative Martin Meehan asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to figure out how much Don't Ask, Don't Tell has cost the military in money and brainpower since its 1994 implementation.

The GAO replied in February with the helpfully titled Financial Costs and Loss of Critical Skills Due to DOD's Homosexual Conduct Policy Cannot Be Completely Estimated.

This result was due to a variety of record-keeping factors, the most important being the lack of data for the Marine Corps. But the GAO was able to come up with some figures, namely that roughly 9,500 people have been booted out of military service under DADT. Those 9,500 accounted for roughly 0.4 percent of 2.37 million service members discharged for any reason since 1994. About 750 of those held critical jobs such as voice interceptor, data processing technician and interpreter/translator. About 320 of the total had skills in Arabic, Farsi and Korean.

In a study the following month, the GAO reported that recruitment was down for the early part of the 2005 fiscal year. The army missed its February recruiting goal by nearly 2,000.

"This is significant," according to the report, "given that the Army has also already called up members from the Individual Ready Reserve and moved new recruits from its delayed entry program into basic training earlier than scheduled."

The army was missing out on not just recruits but specialized recruits. As of November 2004, the navy was short more than 1,000 special divers; the air force was short 445 airborne cryptologists; and the army was short 490 health care specialists. Marine Corps data were not available.

Ultimately, the report warned that "the high pace of military operations combined with the level of casualties in Iraq and other factors such as lengthy overseas deployments have raised concerns about DoD's ability to recruit and retain sufficient numbers of personnel who possess the skills and experience needed."

The reports were enough for Meehan, part of the House Committee on Armed Services, to propose a law in March abolishing the ban on gays in the military. One hundred other legislators, including Sheila Jackson Lee, are co-sponsoring the bill.

Now might be a good time to clarify Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which would be better described as Don't Be Gay, as proffered by an attorney involved in Cook v. Rumsfeld.

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