The Blog

Marines Lead, Ft. Bragg Lags... and Hagel Waits

Having apologized for his own very public failures and committed himself to supporting gay and lesbian service members, Senator Hagel is now under pressure to detail how he plans to make good on that commitment. He would do well to follow Marine Commandant General Amos's example.
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My military career began in the summer of 1990 when I reported for duty at West Point to begin "Beast Barracks" -- six weeks of hard-core military indoctrination that begin the long, arduous process of molding high schoolers into leaders of character to serve the nation. As part of that process, new cadets -- or plebes, as they are known -- must commit to memory a book full of what our upper class instructors called "knowledge," but that seemed more like trivia -- from facts about military customs and courtesies, to the number of gallons of water in the post reservoir, to quotes from famous and not-so-famous generals. At the time it seemed like just another excuse for our cadre to harass us; only in hindsight did the purpose become clear.

One item of plebe knowledge that has stuck with me was an excerpt from the standing orders given by Army General William Worth to the battalion he commanded in the War of 1812. Worth states, in part, "An officer on duty knows no one -- to be partial is to dishonor both himself and the object of his ill-advised favor." At a time when cronyism and corruption were rife in America's Army, Worth argued for impartiality as the hallmark of effective leadership -- a principle that served me well during my own time commanding troops.

Lieutenant General Daniel Allyn, the current commander of Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and the Army's XVIII Airborne Corps, graduated from West Point almost two decades before me, but as a plebe he memorized Worth's words about impartiality just like I did. Unfortunately, he seems to have abandoned the leadership principle behind them, at least when it comes to the gay and lesbian troops and their families under his command. Last December, when the legally married same-sex spouse of one of his officers sought to join the post's officers' spouses club, she was informed she did not meet the club's criteria for membership -- criteria that were changed after she had applied, specifically to bar her and others like her from joining.

OutServe-SLDN, in partnership with our friends at the American Military Partner Association, immediately reached out to inform General Allyn that such blatant discrimination was happening on his watch. But rather than use his considerable influence to correct the situation, he chose first delay, then equivocation, then excuses. Yesterday, after the controversy had dragged on for weeks and received national attention, post leadership timidly offered what is presumably their best effort at a solution, a sort of consolation prize to Ft. Bragg's gay and lesbian families: a severely limited form of base access that does absolutely nothing to address the discrimination the post has now become known for.

On the same day, military lawyers from the office of General James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, issued clear and unequivocal guidance on the issue to all their subordinate commands. It stated that all spouses' support clubs operating on Marine Corps installations must immediately open their doors to welcome gay and lesbian families -- or face eviction. Calling equal treatment of these spouses "an important issue to our Corps," memos obtained by the press sternly warned Marine commanders, "We do not want a story like [Ft. Bragg's] developing in our backyard."

In sending such a clear message to his Marines, General Amos continued to make good on his promise when "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the law that prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly, was repealed over two years ago: that the Marines would lead the way in implementing that repeal. In doing so, he upheld Worth's leadership principle of impartiality and set an example for all the U.S. armed forces to follow. Ft. Bragg's General Allyn, when presented with an opportunity to do the same, demurred -- and in doing so, failed not just his gay and lesbian soldiers, but all the troops under his command. To be fair, however, Allyn was only following the bad example set by his own leaders at the Pentagon -- Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta -- who have adamantly refused to extend allowable benefits to same-sex military families for over two years.

The Senate will soon begin confirmation hearings for Senator Chuck Hagel, nominated this week by President Obama to succeed Panetta as Secretary of Defense. Having apologized for his own very public failures on gay and lesbian issues in the past and committed himself to supporting gay and lesbian service members and their families, Senator Hagel is now under pressure to detail how he plans to make good on that commitment. He would do well to follow Marine Commandant General Amos's example, and timeless principle of impartiality that guided it, by acting immediately upon confirmation to extend all benefits not tied to the federal definition of marriage to same-sex military families, and by expanding the military's non-discrimination policies to include LGBT troops.

Cowards look for excuses. The weak equivocate. Leaders act -- and it's time for action.