Name the greater risk to national security: patriotic military translators who happen to be homosexual or anti-American Islamofascist terrorists who happen to be homicidal? If you picked the latter, thanks for putting U.S. safety first. Alas, the Pentagon disagrees.
According to new Defense Department data, between fiscal years 1998 and 2003, 20 Arabic- and six Farsi-language experts were booted from the military under President Clinton’s 1993 Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy. These GIs trained at the elite Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. Had they graduated–assuming 40-hour work weeks and two-week vacations–they could have dedicated 52,000 man hours annually to interrogate Arab-speaking bomb builders, interpret intercepted enemy communications, or transmit reassuring words to bewildered Baghdad residents.
Preparation for these vital activities ends when a dedicated warrior is found to be gay. Under Don’t Ask, if that GI’s homosexuality becomes evident, he must stop conjugating verbs and head home.
Just ask former Army sergeant Ian Finkenbinder. The 22-year-old Eugene, Oregon, native spent eight months as an Arabic linguist with the Third Infantry Division in Iraq. As a non-commissioned military intelligence officer, he helped other linguists collect information from captured Iraqis. “Our efforts saved lives and improved the quality of life for soldiers around us,” he says from his Baltimore home. He served in units that took enemy fire and merited an Army Commendation Medal and Good Conduct Medal. He earned about $36,000 annually.
After the 3rd I.D. returned to Fort Stewart, Georgia, Finkenbinder sensed that some in his reorganized unit were discussing his personal life behind his back. In November, after a year of increasing discomfort, he handed his commander, Captain James Finnochiaro, a written statement of his homosexuality. Finkenbinder was honorably discharged last month.
“I went to Iraq once,” Finkerbinder says. “I met that challenge. I knew perfectly well I would be able to meet that challenge again.” Still, he wondered, “whether I would be able to serve an institution that had discriminated against me for four years by asking me to maintain my silence, as well as these isolated incidents of people saying things that they shouldn’t.”
Since being booted from the Army, Finkenbinder seeks other work for his Arabic-language skills.
This problem extends beyond those who can communicate with combative Iraqis, duplicitous Saudis, or atom-splitting Iranians. Including Finkenbinder, at least 74 language specialists have been jettisoned from the military between fiscal 1998 and 2003. At least 37 were dismissed after September 11, reports Nathaniel Frank, an adjunct history professor at New York University. Dr. Frank is also a senior research fellow at U.C. Santa Barbara’s Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military. His findings appear in the January 24 New Republic.
Those whose homosexuality impressed the Pentagon more than their rare verbal talents include 18 Korean speakers (visualize Kim Jong Il), 11 Russophones, eight Spanish specialists, three Mandarin Chinese experts, three Serbo-Croatian speakers (Kosovo, anyone?), and one each steeped in German, Hebrew, Italian, and Vietnamese.
War with Italy seems highly unlikely, but Americans need to communicate with our Italian Coalition partners in Iraq. Lacking a U.S. Italophone in combat could get Americans, Italians, or innocent Iraqis killed.
Even worse, Arabic- and Farsi-speaking Islamists plot to murder Americans, even as the U.S. sacks those who prepare to interrogate them and unravel their plans. While the Pentagon purges these dedicated public servants, Islamic extremists chatter away.
America “is without a working channel of communications to the world of Muslims and Islam,” the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board recently warned. The 9/11 Commission concluded that Uncle Sam “lacked sufficient translators proficient in Arabic and other key languages, resulting in significant backlog of untranslated intercepts.”
“This is a cycle of inertia by design,” Nathaniel Frank says. “The Pentagon routinely defers to Congress because it’s now federal law. But when Don’t Ask was devised, Congress deferred to the Pentagon.”
While many military officers endorse this policy, others seem frustrated about losing vital teammates. But most will stay mum until Congress acts.
Congress should replace Don’t Ask with a non-discriminatory policy based on conduct, rather than orientation: Soldiers on duty, gay and straight, must keep their hands to themselves, or face expulsion. Barring such reform, commanders should be allowed to retain soldiers whose value to unit safety and mission outweighs any reservations about their sexuality.
Elements of the 3rd I.D. returned to Iraq January 8, this time without Ian Finkenbinder. He is troubled that they are there, and he is here, unable to speak Arabic to help protect them.
“In a way, going to war with people makes them your family, and I am still very close to all of them,” he says. “We still communicate as frequently as possible. But there are definitely moments when I wish I were there with them–with my family.”
Extra: Interview with a Linguist
The following is Deroy Murdock’s interview with former Army sergeant Ian Finkenbinder, a one-time Arabic linguist who served in Iraq with the Third Infantry Division. The Army discharged the 22-year-old Eugene, Oregon, native under the Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell policy after he disclosed his homosexuality. Finkenbinder now lives as a civilian in Baltimore.
Deroy Murdock: When were you discharged from the Army?
Ian Finkenbinder: I got back from Iraq in August ‘03 and came out with the fact that I am gay in November ‘04, and I was discharged in December ‘04. It was an honorable discharge.
What I did was I wrote up a statement stating the fact that I am gay and that was pretty much it. I turned it into my commander, Capt. James Finnochiaro.
Murdock: Why did you offer that statement?
Finkenbinder: I had reached the point where I decided I did not want to live under the fear of possible retribution from the chain of command, or what have you, due to the fact that I am gay. So, I turned in this statement saying I would be willing to serve as long as I could do so as an openly gay soldier.
Murdock: Did you feel threatened or harassed?
Finkenbinder: There were isolated incidents throughout my service. There was no specific threat upon me at the time. However, I felt the atmosphere where I worked no longer was as comfortable as it had been in the past.
As a linguist, I was in the military intelligence community. I was constantly around other people who are at a level of high education who are open and tolerant of different ideas and different kinds of people. Over the course of the past year, after I got back from Iraq, there was a lot of unit reorganization. So I was around people who, even though they were great soldiers, I still didn’t feel as comfortable working as openly as I had before.
Murdock: What would you say to people who wonder whether you made others around you uncomfortable?
Finkenbinder: For the most part, the people I worked with on a one-on-one basis didn’t show any signs of being uncomfortable at all, even though they knew about my sexuality. I was not out to the chain of command, but I was to my peers. They were cool with it.
There had been times when my friends had heard people in the chain of command talk about me in reference to my homosexuality. While I dealt with that appropriately at the time, that signaled to me that I was in a different atmosphere than what I was comfortable with.
Murdock: How do you answer those who might ask if you announced you were gay to avoid being sent back to Iraq?
Finkenbinder: That is the $64,000 question. I went to Iraq once. I met that challenge., I knew perfectly well I would be ale to meet that challenge again. But it came down to me to be sort of a moral question and a personal question for myself: whether I would be able to serve an institution that had discriminated against me for four years by asking me to maintain my silence as well as these isolated incidents of people saying things that they shouldn’t. I loved serving in the Army, but it got very tiring to deal continually with these issues that are unique to being gay in the military.
Murdock: What was your greatest accomplishment as an Arabic-language expert in Iraq? How best did your skills save lives, catch terrorists, etc.?
Finkenbinder: There’s nothing really remarkable that I could put it print.
There were times when my abilities as a linguist were put to the test, as were the abilities of those around me. Our efforts saved lives and improved the quality of life for soldiers around us.
Murdock: Did any of your discussions in Arabic get vital information out of captured Iraqis or others?
Finkenbinder: I myself did not specifically get exceedingly vital information out of Iraqi nationals; there were definitely those who I worked with who gained excellent intelligence that was pretty vital.
I was part of the intelligence gathering effort. My position was military intelligence throughout my Army career, both as a lower enlisted soldier as well as a non-commissioned officer.
Murdock: What medals or commendations did you earn?
Finkenbinder: I got the Army Commendation Medal while in Iraq. Also, the Good Conduct Medal and the Army Achievement Medal.
Murdock: Were you shot at? Attacked? Injured?
Finkenbinder: I was not injured. There were times in Iraq where the unit I was serving or attached to came under fire.
Murdock: Where were you serving when you have your written statement to your commander?
Finkenbinder: Fort Stewart, Georgia.
Murdock: How much money were you making when you were discharged?
Finkenbinder: I got about $2,200-per-month in take-home pay. That includes all of the entitlements, such as a housing allowance. If you are the best linguist in the Army, you make an extra $200-per-month, as I did. I made about $36,000 annually.
Murdock: Why didn’t you just “not tell,” keep your homosexuality to yourself, and serve our country in Iraq?
Finkenbinder: Because it really became important to me that I, as an individual, were recognized as being as important as the heterosexual soldiers around me, and that I had the same individual freedoms as the others around me. The very same rights that we are trying to establish in Iraq as a democracy, I feel I was being denied, to a degree.
There are very few restrictions placed on heterosexual soldiers based on the nature of consensual relationships in which they are allowed to partake. I, on the other hand, was not allowed to be in any form of consensual relationship that would be true to my nature as a gay man. Any restriction in that sense restricted my rights as an individual.
Murdock: Is the 3rd Infantry Division back in Iraq? Has anyone in it been hurt lately? If so, could you have helped to keep those folks safe?
A: Elements of the 3rd I.D. went back on January 8. None of them has been hurt.
Every soldier over there has the potential to keep their comrades safe, but especially those in the field of intelligence gathering.
Murdock: What do you think about being here when they are in harm’s way, and you might be able to help to keep them safe?”
A: The decision to come out of the closet was very difficult for me. The people I served with who are over there right now were with me in Iraq the first time. In a way, going to war with people makes them your family, and I am still very close to all of them. We still communicate as frequently as possible. But there are definitely moments when I wish I were there with them–with my family.
–Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service.