SAN FRANCISCO — Nine gay linguists, including six trained to speak Arabic, have been discharged from a U.S. Army language institute despite the threat of war in the Middle East and a critical shortage of language specialists in the military and intelligence agencies.
Seven of the specialists had revealed their sexual orientation at The Defense Language Institute in Monterey, and two others were caught together after curfew, said Steve Ralls, spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group that defends gays in the military.
Six were specializing in Arabic, which requires months of intensive training, two were studying Korean and one was learning Mandarin Chinese.
“We face a drastic shortage of linguists, and the direct impact of Arabic speakers is a particular problem,” said Donald R. Hamilton, who documented the need for more linguists in a report to Congress as part of the National Commission on Terrorism.
The federal government has aggressively recruited Arabic speakers since Sept. 11, when security agencies found themselves unable to quickly translate and analyze the huge volume of terrorist communications intercepted before and after the attacks.
At the Monterey institute, the military’s primary language training center, 516 linguists enrolled in the Arabic course this year and 365 graduated, said Harvey Perritt, spokesman for the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command at Ft. Monroe in Tidewater, Va.
Perritt confirmed the nine discharges occurred between October 2001 and September 2002, but declined to comment further about the cases.
After Sept. 11, the Pentagon suspended some administrative discharges, but not the ban on serving as an openly gay member of the armed forces.
Supporters of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, drafted by the Clinton administration and passed by Congress, say allowing gays to serve openly would undercut morale and unit cohesion. The policy allows gays to serve provided they keep quiet about their sexual orientation. Supervisors are not supposed to ask about their sex lives.
Two of the linguists, Alastair “Jack” Gamble and Robert Hicks of Beltsville, Md., were discovered in Gamble’s room during a surprise inspection in April. Because Hicks was breaking curfew, a routine search followed, turning up incriminating letters and other evidence of their sexual orientation, Gamble said.
“My personal situation was upturned, and the rest of world doesn’t have to care about that,” Gamble said. “What they should care about is that they as taxpayers paid a lot of money to train me, and I wanted to use those skills for the good of the country and the country said no thank you.”
Gamble, 24, and Hicks, 28, were aware of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military. Gamble said it was the first time they tried to spend the night together in their eight-month relationship.
“I made the decision to do it knowing full well the consequences,” Gamble said. “It’s not a gay-rights issue. I’m arguing military proficiency issues — they’re throwing out good, quality people.”
After their discharges, Gamble and Hicks applied for other federal jobs where they could use their language skills in the war on terrorism, but neither was hired, Gamble said.
Northwestern University sociology professor and military expert Charles Moskos, who helped write the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, said Gamble and Hicks brought their punishment on themselves.