WASHINGTON -- Army dismissals of gay soldiers more than doubled last year, with many coming from a base where a soldier thought to have been gay was beaten to death the previous year.
The Pentagon said Friday that 1,212 members of the armed services were discharged for homosexual conduct or for stating their homosexuality, a 17 percent increase from the 1,034 the previous year. It was the highest total since the "don't ask, don't tell" policy went into effect in 1994.
The Army had the most with 573, up from 271 the previous year. The Navy and Marines Corps had slight increases while the Air Force had a big drop.
Fort Campbell, located along the Tennessee-Kentucky border, had 161 dismissals, more than any other Army base, according to Lt. Col. Duncan Baugh, a chaplain who is responsible for dealing with the homosexual policy in the Army.
"I am not surprised," said Dr. Paul Gott, a surgeon who was dismissed from Fort Campbell in January after acknowledging he was gay.
Gott tended to Pfc. Barry Winchell, 21, after Winchell was bludgeoned to death while sleeping on his cot July 5, 1999. A fellow soldier who believed Winchell was gay was later convicted of murder.
Gott said he was shaken by Winchell's death.
"Somewhere in the back of your mind is the 'you could be next' sort of thing," Gott said in a telephone interview from Seattle, where he now lives.
A Pentagon inspector general's report issued after Winchell's death said anti-gay behavior was common in the military.
"I think it's a very homophobic environment, where conversations and jokes about gays are routine and generally tolerated," Gott said. "I would not encourage any gay person to join the military."
Winchell's mother, Patricia Kutteles of Kansas City, Mo., said she regularly hears from gay service members who are scared.
"Either it's fear of the violence -- ending up being murdered or hurt like Barry -- or ending up feeling that they're not being true to themselves or the ethics that they want to serve under," she said.
Maj. Pamela Hart, a Fort Campbell spokeswoman, maintains Fort Campbell is a safe place for everybody. "Fort Campbell remains committed to strict adherence to the Department of Defense Homosexual Conduct Policy and to treating all soldiers with dignity and respect," she said.
Baugh said the overall rise in Army gay discharges is not attributable to any one factor and does not "represent to me a negative feature of our implementation of the policy."
The military permits homosexuals to serve so long as they do not engage in homosexual conduct or state their sexual preference. Of last year's total, all but 106 of the discharges were cases in which military members stated their homosexuality. The others were discharged for homosexual acts.
Congress ought to get rid of "don't ask, don't tell," said C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of the Service Members Legal Defense Network, a legal aid and watchdog group.
"Ultimately the policy has to be repealed," he said. "This has been a bad law that has been badly implemented."
The Pentagon announced a year ago it was stepping up training to try to eliminate anti-gay harassment and educate personnel about the policy.
Capt. David Westover, a spokesman for the Air Force, said the training is at least partly responsible for the Air Force's dramatic reduction in discharges, which dropped from 352 in 1999 to 177 last year.
He also said the Air Force implemented new procedures that make it harder for basic trainees to get out of the service by saying they are gay. Westover said that used to be grounds for immediate discharge, but now more effort is made to determine whether the person is being truthful.
The Navy had 358 discharges, up from 314 the year before, while the Marine Corps had 104, up from 97.
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