FORT DEVENS, MASS.
LIFE in the United States armed forces may never be the same. President-elect Clinton, who takes office Jan. 20, has promised to sign an executive order giving homosexuals the same legal protection that blacks and women already enjoy.
The Pentagon's upper echelons have spoken forcefully and repeatedly against lifting the long-standing ban on homosexual soldiers. But how do the rank and file feel about this controversial proposal currently being debated in Congress and on newspaper editorial pages?
A wide array of ordinary soldiers - ranging from Green Beret commandos to nurses to infantrymen - interviewed last week at Fort Devens, the largest Army base in New England, expressed opinions ranging from acceptance to opposition, but with most at least concerned about the proposed change.
"I just don't think gays in the military would work," says Sgt. Rodney Morris, an affable, nine-year Army veteran who works in a dental clinic. "People in the Army are a close-knit group; we take showers together, we live together in open tents. What you do on your own time is your own business, but if it [homosexuality] is out in the open, it would be terrible." Opposition not universal
Sgt. Ed Tierney, a barrel-chested Green Beret with his small son in tow, agrees that gays in the military would be a "morale-buster." Standing in front of the Fort Devens "PX" (Post Exchange), Sergeant Tierney avows he "wouldn't want to be in a hide-out position all night" with a gay soldier.
While apparently dominant among those interviewed, opposition to gays is by no means universal in the ranks. Sgt. Debra Green, who works in a dental clinic at Fort Devens, says she supports including gays "because I don't believe in any kind of discrimination." She says female soldiers tend to look more favorably on the proposed change than their male counterparts. "It's their macho image. It's the male ego," she says disdainfully.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Martin Taylor is a man who also backs the inclusion of homosexuals. He has a gay brother and knows a number of gays in the armed forces who hide their sexual preference. "Sexual orientation does not interfere with their work," he asserts firmly. "Gay people can be very professional as long as `straight' individuals make it clear that they have no interest in becoming gay. They're respectful enough to leave you alone."
But this view seems to be in the minority among those interviewed here at Fort Devens. While many soldiers say they have nothing "personally" against homosexuals, they are concerned about what promises to be a radical departure from the military's traditional ban on homosexuality. "It would be unprecedented," says a private first class in military intelligence who does not want his name used. He repeats, for emphasis, "There's no precedent for it."
While the armies of many American allies do admit homosexuals (Israel and Australia, for example, the latter having recently lifted its ban), the US armed forces have long prohibited openly gay soldiers. This does not prevent homosexuals from entering the armed forces - gay-rights groups estimate that 10 percent of soldiers are homosexual - but it does force them to remain in the `closet.' More than 14,000 soldiers have been discharged for homosexuality during the past decade, although in one recent case , a federal court ordered a gay sailor to be reinstated in the Navy. (See story, page 9)
Lou Criess, a retired Green Beret master sergeant who served in the Vietnam War, says that the armed forces might be ready for a change of course. "Society seems to accept gay lifestyles now. The military is a microcosm of society. So I don't see how the military cannot go along. Fifteen or 20 years ago, it was different. But not now," he says.
Many active-duty soldiers say they reject the view that the military is ready to accept homosexuals, however. "You can't expect the military to have the same views as the rest of society. The military is more closed-minded," says the private first class from military intelligence. Invasion of privacy
This private says that having a homosexual soldier in his barracks has created problems in the past. The gay enlisted man lived with a heterosexual roommate, and "even though nothing was going on," he says, "people didn't look kindly" on either the homosexual or his roommate.
What seems to concern soldiers most about having open homosexuals in their midst is invasions of their privacy. Edward Jillett, a recently discharged infantry sergeant who fought in Operation Desert Storm, says that separate quarters would be necessary. Otherwise, he says, "I would always be thinking, `I gotta watch out for myself.' Especially in barracks where you live with 20 other people."
Despite widespread opposition to lifting the ban, there seemed to be little doubt among those interviewed that they would comply with President Clinton's executive order. "If homosexuals are included in the military by President Clinton, our duty is to say, `yes sir.' He's the commander in chief," says Staff Sgt. Chandelle Huseth, who serves in military intelligence.
Sergeant Huseth believes the new policy would "cause some problems" at first. But once gays are included under the armed forces' "Equal Opportunity Statute" - which forbids discrimination based on such factors as race, color, and religion - she believes the opposition will gradually wither away. "Eventually," she says, "it will all work out."