As Memorial Day approaches, military veterans in Indianapolis are calling attention to issues impacting soldiers and veterans, from the repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy banning gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, to the mounting toll of mental and physical health problems facing troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
In late April, gay and straight veterans toured Indiana college campuses as part of the Voices of Honor tour, a grassroots advocacy campaign organized by Human Rights Campaign to build support for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. The policy was instituted in 1993, and effectively keeps the estimated 65,000 gay and lesbian members of the military in the closet while they serve. More than 13,500 gay and lesbian soldiers have been discharged from the military under Don't Ask Don't Tell, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Indiana is a pivotal state in efforts to overturn Don't Ask Don't Tell, says Scott Spychala, a 20-year veteran of the Air Force who participated in the Voices of Honor speaking tour and lobbied members of Congress in Washington, DC last Tuesday. Indiana brought the second largest delegation of any state to meetings with Indiana congressional members, the Pentagon, and the White House. Support from Indiana is crucial in ending Don't Ask Don't Tell because Senator Evan Bayh is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will likely vote on whether or not to repeal the policy next week.
Spychala says that people around Indiana are in favor of repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell: "It's surprising how supportive everybody was, not only gay people but also straight people. The consensus seems to be, if you can take a bullet you should be able to serve in the military." Being able to be open with fellow service members about who you are as an individual is important, according to Spychala, who says he served his last five years in the Air Force in the closet. "People who join the military are there to do a job, and that requires trust and honesty."
An additional soldier, Scott (who preferred his last name not be used for this story), a four-year veteran of the Air National Guard who also participated in the Voices of Honor Tour, argues that a greater atmosphere of openness in the military would benefit all troops, gay and straight. "Any time you're forced to lie about who you are, it takes away a layer of trust that could definitely impact unit cohesion," he says.
Both men say that the majority of troops today have no problem with serving with people who are gay and lesbian. "None of the straight people I know who were in the military have a problem with it. The younger generation has definitely had more exposure to all different types of cultures and diversity," says Scott. Spychala notes that in the past decade, "the change in attitudes has been just amazing." According to a 2006 Zogby poll, 73 percent of people in the military are comfortable serving with gay and lesbian colleagues.
For Spychala and Scott, the question is whether support from Indiana civilians and veterans will translate into enough votes to repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell. The House bill is co-sponsored by Indianapolis Congressman Andre Carson and Congressman Pete Visclosky of northwest Indiana.
Carson says: "As a result of Don't Ask Don't Tell, hundreds of qualified troops have been removed from service. The most egregious of these is the removal of translators while our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are struggling to communicate with local populations. Repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell will increase available troops, increase time available for rest and training, and will prevent removal of critical personnel. It's as much a national security issue as much as a moral issue."
However, Senator Bayh has not yet said which way he will vote later this month. Scott feels hopeful that Bayh will vote in favor of repeal: "Bayh has a good voting record on human rights issues. I would imagine he would definitely back the bill. Since he's not seeking reelection, there's no reason for fear of a backlash."
Some veterans are frustrated by the White House's lack of action on Don't Ask Don't Tell in recent months. President Obama said in his State of the Union address in January that he would work with Congress this year "to finally repeal the law that denies gays and lesbians the right to serve the country they love because of who they are." But since then, the White House has been quiet on the issue, and recently said that the president wants to wait for the results of a Pentagon study on how the repeal would be implemented, which is not due until December.
Activists fear that if a vote is delayed until after the midterm elections, they may no longer have enough support for the repeal. "I'm really looking for President Obama to speak out more strongly," says Spychala. "There now seems to be backpedaling from the White House and Congress. This is the most opportune time to get rid of this law."
Noting that even prominent conservatives such as former vice president Dick Cheney have come out in support of ending Don't Ask Don't Tell, Scott says "this is not a Republican or Democrat issue — it's just common sense."
Not living up to promises
According to supporters of soldiers' and veterans' rights, Don't Ask Don't Tell isn't the only issue on which the Obama Administration is not living up to its promises. Vietnam veteran and peace activist Carl Rising-Moore argues that providing soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq with the care they need for psychological and physical injuries is a fundamental right and another way that the Obama administration is failing to support soldiers and veterans.
A 2008 study by the RAND Corporation estimates that at least one in five soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or traumatic brain injuries resulting from exposure to improvised explosive devices. These conditions are exacerbated by deployments that are increasing in length and frequency, meaning that soldiers have little opportunity to seek counseling or treatment. Many soldiers fear the stigma of admitting to suffering from mental health issues. 160 soldiers committed suicide while on active service in the Army in 2009, the highest number ever recorded according the Department of Defense.
"There is no going into combat and not having health problems coming out," says Rising-Moore, whether physical or mental health problems, or both. In the past he has assisted suicidal soldiers in deserting to Canada via a "freedom underground" of peace activists (Cover, "Soldier for peace," March 31-April 7). These days, Rising-Moore works on helping soldiers who are suffering from mental health issues or who have an ethical objection to serving in Afghanistan and Iraq to gain a discharge through official channels if possible.
Rising-Moore advises soldiers and veterans to seek help through advocacy groups such as Disabled American Veterans or American Veterans Assistance (AMVETS) rather than trying to navigate the notoriously difficult bureaucracy of the military and Department of Veterans Affairs alone. "Historically the VA has done a very poor job of helping returning troops. They try to ration care because it costs money," says Rising-Moore. "You can't expect to go to the VA alone and get adequate help."
The regional Veterans Affairs office in Indianapolis currently has a backlog of more than 10,000 claims for benefits, including requests for health care and disability compensation. A bill currently before Congress called the Combat PTSD Act, co-sponsored by Rep. Andre Carson, would allow any soldier who has served in Iraq or Afghanistan and suffers from PTSD symptoms to claim disability benefits.
Rising-Moore is deeply disappointed that the Obama administration has not done much so far to improve health services for soldiers and veterans, respond to the epidemic levels of PTSD and suicide, repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell, or bring troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Ultimately, Rising-Moore would like to see the U.S. bring home all troops on foreign soil except for those guarding U.S. embassies. "With that, Obama could really earn his Nobel Peace Prize," he says.