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Service, disconnected

Military service should be open to anyone willing and able to do the job

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Long ago and far away overseas, while serving in the Army in the early 1960s, I witnessed something in the name of “military justice” that angered me and turned my stomach. It still does.

I served in Asmara, Eritrea, on an Army Security Agency post called Kagnew Station and was an Army broadcaster with the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service.

It was a small post, maybe 3,000 men, and it didn’t take long before most people knew or at least recognized just about everybody there. And in the nearly two years I spent at Kagnew, I can safely say I really did know most of the folks there, and the units they were with. It was easy—we all frequented the same base clubs, bars, PX, Class 6 store, movie theater, barber shop, etc., and had many of the same mandatory training sessions.

And while we weren’t all great friends, mostly we got along and co-existed as well as can be expected, even though we were a mixed lot of Army, Air Force, and Navy personnel.

Back then, few people outside of the military had any idea the post even existed, and there was good reason for that. Its main mission was to serve as a secret “listening post” for shortwave traffic between Africa and the Mideast, and it was located at the top of a mountain well over 5,000 feet high—perfect for the antenna fields manned by the military and staffed by the engineers, communications specialists, and linguists of the three services. The base and the land under the antenna fields were leased from the Ethiopian government, then headed by Emperor Haile Selassie.

One day, while walking up to the EM Club for a brew after my on-air shift, I saw two armed Military Police guys hurrying along with a man in handcuffs and shackles between them, and the man in the middle was red-faced, perspiring heavily, and obviously very upset. His eyes were cast down on the ground, but as I passed, he looked up at me, and I realized I knew the man. He had been on the base almost four years, much longer than me.

The job he had wasn’t for a career soldier. It was just another grunt job, like thousands of other MOS (Military Occupational Specialties). And this guy was an affable individual, always smiled and said “hi” when encountered on base, and seemed harmless enough.

What could he have possibly done to get arrested and sent to the stockade? I couldn’t imagine, so when I got to the club, I went over to a military police friend and asked what it was all about.

“Didn’t you hear?” he said. “They caught him in the shower room with the chaplain’s assistant, and they were doing things men don’t do to each other.”

I was incredulous. “So what happens now?” I said.

“He’s all done with the Army,” said my friend. “He’ll be busted out of the Army on a Section 8, and get a dishonorable discharge. That’s

what happens to guys like that.”

I couldn’t believe it. The guy was just a few short weeks away from going home after a four-year tour of duty, had hurt no one, had revealed no secrets, had stolen nothing, had served honorably and ably—and now he was facing a dishonorable discharge because he was homosexual? The brass couldn’t just say don’t get caught again, these are the rules, don’t say we didn’t warn you—and let him leave the service in an honorable way and with an honorable discharge?

Well, no, they couldn’t—or at least they didn’t.

The man was court martialed and convicted of behavior unsuitable for a member of the Armed Forces and was sent back to the United States for dismissal from the Army under a dishonorable discharge, which, of course, will follow you around for the rest of your working life.

During the remainder of my tour, my friends and I had numerous discussions about this action on the part of the military, and to a man, we were all in agreement: It was unjustified, it was mean-spirited, it was harsh, and it was wrong.

I still feel that way to this day, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” doesn’t make serving under those rules and conditions any better now than it ever did.

Time to do away with this stupidity, once and for all.

Serving in the military, especially with two wars going on, is an honorable and admirable calling.

In my humble opinion, such selfless and voluntary service should be open to everyone and anyone willing and able to do the job. Bar none.

John Winthrop is an Army veteran who has more than 20 years experience as a news reporter, editor, and news director at WBZ-TV in Boston, KRON-TV in San Francisco, KCOY-TV in Santa Maria, and several other television and radio stations. He resides in Cayucos with his cat, Smokin’Joe. Send comments to the editor at econnolly@newtimesslo.com.

-- John Winthrop - Cayucos

-- John Winthrop - Cayucos

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