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Army's waste of talent

One of the greatest challenges facing the nation in its fight against terrorism is overcoming the cultural barriers between us and our enemies. We have an especially critical shortage of military and intelligence officers who are fluent in Arabic. So it is more than a little troubling that nine soldiers have been kicked out of the Defense Language Institute _ where six of them were studying Arabic _ merely because of their sexual orientation.

The Army discovered the relationship between soldiers Alastair Gamble and Robert Hicks during a surprise inspection of Gamble's room. The Army found "letters of affection" and nonsexual pictures of the two, which triggered the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. With their homosexuality revealed, they were discharged. The other soldiers were apparently kicked out of the Army after telling superiors they are gay. Seven of the linguists are gay men, and two are lesbians.

It made little sense to Gamble. "It's not a gay-rights issue," he said. "I'm arguing military proficiency issues. They're throwing out good, quality people."

It also made little sense to Donald Hamilton, a senior adviser to the 2000 National Commission on Terrorism. "The shortage of Arabic speakers in the intelligence community is well established," he said. "The loss of talent is a cost of (the "don't ask, don't tell' policy)."

While the Army might argue that open homosexuality isn't appropriate in some military settings, that doesn't necessarily apply to linguists. They likely would work in modern office settings where Americans are accustomed to diversity, including in sexual orientation. Under its current policy, the Army is wasting human resources as well as money. A soldier's training at the Defense Language Institute costs $200,000.

The disturbing mind-set responsible for this situation was expressed by Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University professor and military expert who helped write the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. He called the behavior of Gamble and Hicks "disgraceful." "These guys betrayed the gay cause," Moskos said. "They put their own self-interest above fighting al-Qaida."

Isn't this an American cause, and weren't those soldiers kept from making a contribution in the war on terrorism? No one had accused them of laziness or disloyalty. Perhaps they grew weary of leading a life of secrecy and implied shame.

In fact, the treatment of these soldiers is more typical of those societies that breed so many anti-American terrorists. Radical Islamic regimes treat their gay citizens as social outcasts and even criminals. It is yet another way they have squandered their human capital.

It is also a trait that should differentiate us from them.