WASHINGTON (AP) -- Activists are welcoming efforts to stop harassment of homosexuals in the military, saying it's about time officials ''finally acknowledged'' the longstanding problem.
Defense Secretary William Cohen announced Friday he's creating a special committee to look into the problem after a Pentagon inspector general's survey found that anti-gay speech and harassment is commonplace in the American military, especially among young enlisted troops.
Eighty-five percent of those surveyed said they believed anti-gay comments are tolerated on their base or aboard their ship, and 37 percent said they had personally witnessed or been the target of harassment -- such as hostile gestures, graffiti or physical assault -- based on perceived homosexuality.
Michelle Benecke, co-executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network -- an advocacy group for gays in the military -- said the results of the survey expose a problem her organization has sought to draw attention to for years.
''I'm glad that Pentagon leaders finally acknowledged that problem today,'' Benecke said. ''I welcome all serious efforts to address anti-gay harassment,'' including Cohen's establishment of a committee to seek new solutions.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said she was still reviewing the report but applauded Cohen's decision to set up the working group ''to assure fairness in the military ... ranks.''
The survey also found a widespread belief among troops that the current ''don't ask, don't tell'' policy on gays in the military -- which Vice President Al Gore says he would eliminate if he were elected president -- is not working. President Clinton himself has said the policy, forged by his administration in 1993, is now ''out of whack.''
Cohen said the new military and civilian panel he's creating will draft a plan for measures to improve the policy's implementation. And he put military chiefs on notice as well.
''The report shows that military leaders must do more to make it clear that harassment based on sexual orientation violates military values,'' Cohen said in a memorandum to the services' civilian and uniformed leaders.
The administration's policy, set in law by Congress after a heated political battle, says gays and lesbians may serve in the military so long as they keep their sexual orientation to themselves and military commanders may not inquire about it. Pentagon policy still bars open homosexuals from serving in uniform. Although the policy was designed to make it easier for gays to serve, an increasing number have been discharged in recent years.
Among the survey's key findings:
--Eighty percent of the 71,500 members of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps surveyed said they had heard offensive speech or jokes or derogatory names or remarks about gays in the past year.
--Thirty-three percent said they heard it often. It was reported most common among junior enlisted troops and most frequently in the Marine Corps and least in the Air Force.
--Of the offensive behaviors or actions reported as directed against gays, offensive speech was the most common. It was mentioned by 89 percent of those who reported witnessing or experiencing some form of harassment. Hostile gestures were reported by 35 percent; threats or intimidation by 20 percent; graffiti by 15 percent, vandalism of personal property by 7 percent and physical assault by 9 percent.
--Less than 50 percent said they had received training on the ''don't ask, don't tell'' policy. About 50 percent of all service members surveyed said they believed the policy was at least moderately effective at reducing harassment of gays.
Cohen ordered the survey last December. It was done on 38 U.S. military bases and aboard 10 Navy surface ships and one submarine from Jan. 24 to Feb. 11.
The Pentagon was forced to take a closer look at how the gay policy is being implemented after the bludgeoning death last July of a gay Army private.
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