WASHINGTON — When he stood over live bombs in Afghanistan, methodically working to disarm them, nobody worried about the fact that he was gay, Brian Muller said.
But Muller, who silenced booby traps and detonated bomb caches hidden in caves as part of a bomb-technician crew, said his homosexuality became an issue when he was off-duty. He had a commanding officer who, Mullersaid, aggressively sought to clear his ranks of servicemen like Muller whose sexuality was an open secret.
“He made his feelings very well-known,” said Muller, who was attached to the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division along Afghanistan’s eastern border in 2002 and 2003.
After revealing that he was gay, Muller, who spent his adolescence in Ozark and graduated from Ozark High School, was discharged with full honors.
In September, he watched from the Senate gallery as a guest of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s when Republicans - joined by both of Arkansas’ Democratic senators - blocked an attempt to repeal the President Bill Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bars homosexuals from openly serving in the U.S. military.
Now, Reid says, he’ll try again.
“We need to repeal this discriminatory policy so that any American who wants to defend our country can do so,” Reid said, announcing that he would take the legislation to the Senate floor after the Thanksgiving break, before the current Congress adjourns.
Opponents of changing the policy say that allowing homosexuals to serve would drain morale and handicap the armed forces as they confront the enemy on two battlefields. At the very least, critics would prefer to wait until the results of a survey of active servicemen is released Tuesday to gauge what impact letting homosexuals openly serve would have on military readiness and recruitment.
The report was originally to be released Wednesday, but the Defense Department changed its schedule, allowing Congress an extra day to digest its findings.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian advocacy group, said the effort to repeal the policy is “using the military to advance a social agenda.”
Reid’s attempt to bring up another vote on the subject is “an effort by the administration and Congress to pander to a small but influential part of the Democratic Party’s base,” Perkins said.
When the issue went before the Senate two months ago, Arkansas’ two senators were the only Democrats to vote against it besides Reid - who did so for reasons of parliamentary procedure. Under Senate rules, those who voted with the prevailing side can move to reconsider the vote.
At least one of Arkansas’ senators still supports “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
In an interview, Sen. Mark Pryor said he will vote against any bill that includes a repeal of the policy.
In the waning days of the current Congress, he said, lawmakers should focus on legislation that aims to produce jobs, not on contentious issues that have stymied them before.
Although the report reportedly says that “don’t ask, don’t tell” can be repealed without undermining military readiness, Pryor said the armed services should deliberate a bit longer before making any policy changes, adding, “I want to give the military the time to do what they’re doing.”
But the status quo won’t last, Pryor said.
“Society has changed a lot,” he said, “and over time, this policy will change.”
While he said he considers homosexuality a sin and is concerned about where gay troops would be housed, “we live in a society where we accept other people’s lifestyles, so I don’t want to be judgmental,” Pryor said.
Still, he voiced concerns that a repeal of “don’t ask” might make life harder for the troops’ anti-homosexual spiritual leaders.
“If the policy is changed, what impact does that have on chaplains?” Pryor asked. “Does it impede a chaplain from doing what he thinks is his duty to God and country?”
Sen. Blanche Lincoln said her September vote was a reflection of her unhappiness with the overall defense-policy bill - not a reflection of opposition to homosexuals in the military. She had tried, unsuccessfully, to offer unrelated amendments to the bill.
The recently defeated incumbent would not say when asked last week if she would support the bill when it comes up again, regardless of whether her amendments are included.
“That’s all hypothetical,” she said. “We don’t know how it’s going to be brought up or what the opportunities are going to be.”
Muller wasn’t impressed with Lincoln’s rationale.
“She was playing politics with it,” said Muller. “If you’re for it, you should vote for it.”
Muller, an active member of Service members United, an advocacy group for homosexual veterans, now lives in Washington and works for a federal agency supporting U.S. war efforts overseas.
Eric McDaniel, president of the Stonewall Democratic Caucus of Arkansas, a group of Democrats in the state who advocate for homosexuals, said members of the group were “disappointed and angered” by Lincoln’s and Pryor’s votes.
“It’s bigotry,” he said.
McDaniel said he’s hopeful that the policy is repealed during the lame-duck session, while Democrats hold majorities in both houses of Congress.
“This is probably our last chance for a good while,” he said.
Arkansas’ incoming U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, who served as a U.S. Army Reserve officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, said he supports the current “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
He said he will consider the Pentagon’s report but he has questions about whether allowing open homosexuals in the military would affect readiness and recruitment.
During his tenure as a prosecutor, he said, discharges of homosexual soldiers came up in his office, but he didn’t personally prosecute such a case.
Griffin said he didn’t know whether any of his fellow soldiers were gay.
“I have never asked,” he said “and no one has ever told.”
The Family Research Council’s Perkins said that to be an effective fighting force, the military discriminates against people if they don’t meet physical or intellectual measures, and that morality - such as the commission of adultery - is policed differently in the military than it is in the civilian judicial system.
Having openly homosexual soldiers sharing living and shower facilities with straight soldiers would be a problem, he said, because “you have to know there are no sexual relations going on” within a military unit.
He said if homosexuals were allowed to openly serve, platoon and company commanders might play favorites and decide not to send certain soldiers out on dangerous, but tactically necessary, missions if the soldiers were romantic partners.
“In a military unit, you’ve got to have shared risk” or trust between members of the unit is lost, he said.
Muller said that in wartime, tight quarters are common. But, he said, soldiers in Afghanistan respected one another’s privacy in showers and sleeping quarters. Modesty and the exhaustion of battle erased sexual desire, he said.
“When you get back from a mission, all you’re trying to do is wash and get some sleep before you go out on another mission.”
Muller also disagreed with the notion that gay members of a squad would break the bonds of trust among soldiers.
“Unit cohesion would be tighter,” he said. “Its easier if they know who you are and where you’re coming from.”