I Love You; Please Go Away

Several years ago, I attended a poetry slam at New York's Bowery Poetry Club. One of the presenting poets, whose name now escapes me, tore up the competition with a biting poem about an obsessive lover who cannot tear herself apart from her boyfriend, but is convinced she simply cannot live with him, either.

"I love you; please go away," she pleaded, "I hate you; why won't you stay?"

It was a poem, and a line, I couldn't help but think about this morning as I read the latest public statement out of the Pentagon about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the federal ban on lesbian, gay and bisexual service members.

According to The New York Times, the Department of Defense dismissed a total of 627 troops under the law in 2007, nearly half of whom were women. That brings the total number booted under the ban to more than 12,000. And even though discharges are down more than 50% since (surprise!) 2001, an average of nearly 2 people are fired under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" every day.

The loss of talent to the military, and the country, is staggering: More than 300 language specialists fired. Helicopter pilots, doctors, intelligence officers... all dismissed from service not because they couldn't do their jobs, but because they happen to be gay. It's a military "brain drain" that we can hardly afford anytime, let alone during a time of war.

So it may come as no surprise that, in this morning's Times, the military gently reminds the service members who have been fired from one job that they can still get another... in many cases doing the exact same thing.

"Separated members have the opportunity to continue to serve their nation and national security by putting their abilities to use by way of civilian employment with other federal agencies, the Department of Defense or in the private sector, such as with a government contractor," Eileen M. Lainez, a Pentagon spokeswoman on personnel issues, told the paper. "We expect all service members to be treated with dignity and respect all the time."

And that's always been true, but it's interesting that the Pentagon has chosen this moment, when forces are stretched thin and officials are issuing a record number of "moral waivers" to boost enlistment, to point the fact out publicly.

What it means in practical terms is that many of the specialists dismissed under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" can return to government service -- though not in uniform -- and continue their jobs. For example, a dismissed Arabic linguist, who can no longer serve as a member of the armed forces, can return as a DoD civilian employee, protected under a federal non-discrimination policy, and do exactly the same job, in many cases in the same office, and not have to worry about being fired.

That's just how ridiculous, and how absurd, the law really is.

It's the DoD equivalent of "I love you; please go away... I hate you; why won't you stay?" Or, in Pentagon prose rather than Bowery Street poetry, "Let the government have it both ways."

Rather than forcing the Pentagon to point out loopholes to keep good people, though, Congress should stop playing politics with people and just repeal the law once and for all. The country would be far better off, after all, with a policy of "I love you; please stay."