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.
"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.
"What if a homosexual couple comes to the chaplain and wants to be married?" Young asked.
Marriage counseling is a bedrock duty for chaplains, especially with the current strain on unions caused by ongoing deployments. Chaplains head the military's "Strong Bonds" marriage program. Young predicts gay couples will start to come to these sessions, putting many chaplains in difficult positions.
Would the military order the chaplains to work to improve such a union? Or would the military replace them with counselors who condone homosexuality, risking the rejection of such programs by conservative military families?
Currently, conservative evangelicals form the core of the chaplaincy. But these chaplains must also answer to endorsing denominations that likely would not support chaplains in a military that condones homosexuality.
"The conservative, Bible-believing chaplain is going to be marginalized," Young says. "We want to minister to everybody, but we want to do it according to the truth of Scripture, not political correctness."
More than 40 retired chaplains have signed a letter to President Obama. In it they warn that a repeal would turn "Christians-both chaplains and servicemen-into second-class soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines." Jewish and Catholic groups have also spoken out against repeal.
These are not the only warnings the administration has ignored. More than 1,000 retired military officers from all service branches wrote that the change would "break the all-volunteer force."
In an unprecedented break from Mullen, all four heads of the service branches wrote Congress urging lawmakers to hold off on any votes until after the military completes its review.
Gen. George Casey, the Army's chief of staff, wrote that repealing the rule before the Dec. 1 review "will be seen by men and women of the Army as a reversal of our commitment to hear their views."
And it is not just top officers: For four years in a row, a Military Times poll of active duty troops found that a majority opposes the repeal. Ten percent of respondents say they would not re-enlist and an additional 14 percent say they would consider ending their military careers. If 10 percent did drop out, that would mean a loss of more than 228,000 troops.
"I suspect many service members, their families, veterans, and citizens are wondering what to do to stop this ill-advised repeal of a policy that has achieved balance between a citizen's desire to serve and acceptable conduct," wrote Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the top commander in the Pacific, in a letter to the military's Stars and Stripes publication. Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman, chastised Mixon for speaking outside the chain of command.
Why have Democrats ignored these pleas and voted anyway before the military has had its say? They are fearful that waiting past the November election means they may not have enough votes to move forward, says Alliance Defense Fund lawyer Daniel Blomberg.
He adds that the homosexual lobby has made ending the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy a top goal because it understands that the military as an institution exerts an outsized influence on molding American life.
"This is not a narrow fight just about the military," he told me. "This is just step one in achieving the goal of normalizing homosexuality in mainstream America."
Matt Coles, director of the ACLU's Center for Equality, in a recent essay argued that the military could be the engine for even greater changes. "Getting rid of DADT won't be enough," Coles wrote. "There's another little law called the Defense of Marriage Act that will have to go as well."
At a June 22 event at the White House honoring lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender pride month, Obama told activists "we've got a lot of hard work we've still got to do."
In this push, there is one question retired Brig. Gen. James Hutchens says few lawmakers are asking: How will protecting homosexuality enhance the military and help it protect the nation? Hutchens, who testified before Congress on this issue in 1993, says that should be the key to all changes to the military.
He says the social experiment will prove to be an enormous challenge to implement and will create internal conflicts that will hurt morale.
The first chaplain to be wounded in combat during the Vietnam War, Hutchens knows about the heart of a soldier. Hutchens, then a 31-year-old captain, joined a dawn patrol in the jungles north of Saigon in early November 1965. He knew that to have a ministry he had to go with the men.
The company-sized unit marched right into a regiment-sized ambush. The unit's commander ordered the patrol to back into a defensive perimeter. But not before its point man got hit.
Wounding but not killing one soldier to lure others to re-enter the line of fire was a favorite tactic of enemy snipers. Hutchens joined four other soldiers in answering the wounded man's cries for help. Every one of the rescuers quickly fell with their own bullet wounds. One died.
Hutchens dragged himself back to the unit, which endured a day and night of repeated enemy charges before a helicopter rescue the following morning. More than 100 were left wounded but 44 didn't survive the ambush.
Hutchens said he learned something that day: the importance of chaplains in the military. "Men in situations like that are asking important questions. They are telling themselves, 'I can die out here.' They are ready to do spiritual business."
That is why, after less than two months of recovery, Hutchens went back out on another mission. "I hobbled along but I went."
He hopes evangelical chaplains will continue to be there.
To hear Edward Lee Pitts discuss this article on the "Knowing the Truth" radio program, click here.
The White House and Congress have spent the year aggressively pursuing efforts to repeal the 17-year-old policy that has been upheld in federal courts five times:
Jan. 27: "This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are," President Obama said at his first State of the Union Address.
Feb. 2: "We have received our orders from the commander in chief and are moving out accordingly," said Defense Secretary Robert Gates, announcing a year-long Pentagon review (due Dec. 1) of how repeal would affect the military's readiness, cohesion, and effectiveness.
March 3: Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., introduces legislation, the first in nearly two decades, to overturn the ban.
March 25: Gates announces that the Pentagon would relax enforcement of the DADT rules, making it more difficult to discharge open homosexuals in the military, on the assumption that Congress will overturn the ban. The Pentagon won't follow anonymous complaints, requiring testimonies under oaths, while allowing only senior officers to begin discharge proceedings.
May 27: The House votes 234 to 194 to repeal the policy. Democratic leaders take the vote directly to the floor, bypassing the committee process, because Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, opposes repeal.
May 27: The Senate Armed Services Committee also votes, 16 to 12, to change the policy. Joining 11 Republicans, Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a former Marine and secretary of the Navy, is the lone Democrat to vote against the repeal measure: "I believe we had a process in place and to pre-empt it in some ways showed a disrespect for the people in the military," Webb said.
June: A recently wed gay soldier applies for on-base married housing benefits with his male partner at Fort Drum, N.Y., prompting an investigation.