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Friday, July 28, 2006
 
War Time Dispatches: Keeping America's Priorities Straight

And now a brief moment for some overdue patriotism.

Army dismisses gay Arabic linguist

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. -- A decorated sergeant and Arabic language specialist was dismissed from the U.S. Army under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, though he says he never told his superiors he was gay and his accuser was never identified.

Bleu Copas, 30, told The Associated Press he is gay, but said he was "outed" by a stream of anonymous e-mails to his superiors in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C.

"I knew the policy going in," Copas said in an interview on the campus of East Tennessee State University, where he is pursuing a master's degree in counseling and working as a student adviser. "I knew it was going to be difficult."

An eight-month Army investigation culminated in Copas' honorable discharge on Jan. 30 - less than four years after he enlisted, he said, out of a post-Sept. 11 sense of duty to his country.

Copas now carries the discharge papers, which mention his awards and citations, so he can document his military service for prospective employers. But the papers also give the reason for his dismissal.

He plans to appeal to the Army Board for Correction of Military Records.

The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, established in 1993, prohibits the military from inquiring about the sex lives of service members, but requires discharges of those who openly acknowledge being gay.

The policy is becoming "a very effective weapon of vengeance in the armed forces" said Steve Ralls, a spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a Washington-based watchdog organization that counseled Copas and is working to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Copas said he was never open about his sexuality in the military and suspects his accuser was someone he mistakenly befriended and apparently slighted.

More than 11,000 service members have been dismissed under the policy, including 726 last year - an 11 percent jump from 2004 and the first increase since 2001.

That's less than a half-percent of the more than 2 million soldiers, sailors and Marines dismissed for all reasons since 1993, according to the General Accountability Office.

But the GAO also noted that nearly 800 dismissed gay or lesbian service members had critical abilities, including 300 with important language skills. Fifty-five were proficient in Arabic, including Copas, a graduate of the Defense Language Institute in California.

Discharging and replacing them has cost the Pentagon nearly $369 million, according to the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Lt. Col. James Zellmer, Copas' commanding officer in the 313th military intelligence battalion, told the AP that "the evidence clearly indicated that Sgt. Copas had engaged in homosexual acts."

While investigators were never able to determine who the accuser was, "in the end, the nature and the volume of the evidence and Sgt. Copas's own sworn statement led me to discharge him," Zellmer said.

Military investigators wrote that Copas "engaged in at least three homosexual relationships, and is dealing with at least two jealous lovers, either of whom could be the anonymous source providing this information."

Shortly after Copas was appointed to the 82nd Airborne's highly visible All-American Chorus last May, the first e-mail came to the chorus director.

"The director brought everyone into the hallway and told us about this e-mail they had just received and blatantly asked, 'Which one of you are gay?'" Copas said.

Copas later complained to the director and his platoon sergeant, saying the questions violated "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

"They said they would watch it in the future," Copas said. "And they said, even specifically then, 'Well, you are not gay are you?' And I said, 'no.'"

The accuser, who signed his e-mails "John Smith" or "ftbraggman," pressed Copas' superiors to take action against him or "I will inform your entire battalion of the information that I gave you."

On Dec. 2, investigators formally interviewed Copas and asked if he understood the military's policy on homosexuals, if he had any close acquaintances who were gay, and if he was involved in community theater. He answered affirmatively.

But Copas declined to answer when they asked, "Have you ever engaged in homosexual activity or conduct?" He refused to answer 19 of 47 questions before he asked for a lawyer and the interrogation stopped.

Copas said he accepted the honorable discharge to end the ordeal, to avoid lying about his sexuality and risking a perjury charge, and to keep friends from being targeted.

"It is unfair. It is unjust," he said. "Even with the policy we have, it should never have happened."

I believe the immortal and legendary words of Representative Thaddeus Stevens (R-PA):

In my youth, in my manhood, in my old age, I had fondly dreamed that when any fortunate chance should have broken up for awhile the foundations of our institutions, and released us from obligations the most tyrannical that ever man imposed in the name of freedom, that the intelligent, pure and just [citizens] of this Republic...would have so remodelled all our institutions as to have freed them from every vestige of human oppression, of inequality of rights, of the recognized degradation of the poor, and the superior caste of the rich...This bright dream has vanished 'like the baseless fabric of a dream.' I find that we shall be obliged to be content with patching up the worst portions of the ancient edifice, and leaving it, in many of its parts, to be swept through by the storms of despotism.

We had an opportunity, after September 11th and the invasion of Iraq, to quietly sweep under the rug the particularistic exclusions within the general call to (military and national) service. The country's feeling of being at war and under siege had invested the President with the power to begin to refashion away some of the old prejudices in favor of the new births of freedom. It, sadly, was not to be the case. Like Stevens, I must also look forward to a future that will be free of discrimination and sensitive (and bigoted) individuals enforcing their individual sensitivities (and bigotries) through institutions of power.