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Speaking out

Military | Ask retired chaplains, and they'll tell you that ending the military's ban on open homosexuals would have a devastating effect not only on the military but on a vital ministry

Issue: "Tilting at turbines," July 17, 2010

The call for a chaplain went out at the Bethesda Naval Hospital sometime after three in the morning. So naval officer Mark Jumper entered the room of the dying. He saw a sailor, nearly wasted away. Lying on his stomach, the sailor tried any position to alleviate his final pain.

A victim of AIDS, the sailor, abandoned by his family for his gay lifestyle, was dying alone. Until he asked for the chaplain.

When the military first started testing for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, Jumper told himself that he would provide the love and care of a simple touch to the sick. Jumper placed his hands on the sailor's arms and did the only other thing he knew felt right-he prayed.

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"His focus was on finding God at that moment. . . . So I am grateful I was there," Jumper, now retired after almost 25 years as a military chaplain, told me recently.

The sailor died later that night.

Jumper tells that story to remind people that a chaplain's job is to minister to whoever comes his way. But he also believes that such a ministry should include sticking to biblical truths.

Today Jumper and other retired chaplains are worried that Congress and top military brass may soon handcuff these uniformed pastors, forcing them to choose between serving two masters-God or their commanders in a military that condones a lifestyle in opposition to biblical teachings.

The reason: The congressional Democratic majority is rapidly moving forward with President Obama's campaign promise to allow gays to serve openly in the military.

"For the first time in American history, virtues that are taught by chaplains will go directly against the moral message of the military," said Richard Young, a retired Army colonel who spent 25 years as a chaplain. "This will really muzzle how chaplains will be able to minister without facing charges of discrimination."

Some current and future chaplains may choose to shun the military for other places of ministry in a mass exodus that could devastate the place of religion in the nation's armed forces.

In 1993 Congress responded to then President Bill Clinton's efforts to end the ban on homosexuals serving in the military by holding 12 legislative hearings. They eventually passed, with a bipartisan and veto-proof majority, a law codifying the long-standing military policy that gays are not eligible for military service.

Clinton answered by proposing the policy, popularly called "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," that homosexuals could serve as long as they did not reveal their sexual preferences. This has remained the policy since. Meanwhile, the federal courts have upheld the law, stating that homosexuality is incompatible with the military.

But this year has seen rapid changes. In February, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before Congress that ending the policy is "the right thing to do." Just three years earlier, Gen. Peter Pace, Mullen's predecessor as chairman, had said, "We should not condone immoral acts."

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in March, set a Dec. 1 deadline for a Pentagon review on how a repeal would impact the military. But Congress decided it couldn't wait that long. One day after Gates set the review, Democrats introduced legislation to overturn the ban.

That bill has passed the House and the Senate Armed Services Committee. All that remains is a full Senate vote. "This is the most serious legal issue facing America since Roe v. Wade," said Doug Lee, a retired brigadier general chaplain.

Consequences for the military and, subsequently the nation's security, could be far-reaching. But this may be a point largely unknown to lawmakers in a Congress that features fewer and fewer politicians with military experience.

Where to house open gays and lesbians is just one of the many thorny issues that the military must untangle if "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" dies. "Living on a Navy ship is not like living on a cruise ship," said retired Cmdr. Wayne Johnson, who spent 16 years in the Navy.

Johnson wonders if potential recruits, or their parents, who morally object to the gay lifestyle would want to serve if it meant showering and sleeping in barracks with those who find their own gender sexually attractive-and have the legal right to say so.

"It already is a pressure cooker, and now you are going to throw in some nitroglycerin to see what happens," Johnson said. "I think people will vote with their feet."

Chaplains are equally worried that the change will force theologically conservative pastors to think twice before joining, potentially leaving this important mission field to pastors from liberal denominations. Chaplains expect to find their ability to preach and counsel severely muzzled, particularly when it comes to teaching from books of the Bible like Romans, which speak against homosexuality.

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