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Pentagon survey asks military spouses about "don't ask" repeal

By Laurie Ure, CNN
  • The survey was mailed to about 150,000 spouses of active duty and reserve personnel
  • Gates says survey responses "will help us assess the impact" of a change in the law
  • The questions suggest that "gays and lesbians are second-class citizens," researcher says

Washington (CNN) -- The Pentagon wants to know what military spouses think of the plan to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy of barring openly gay and lesbian soldiers from military service.

The survey, mailed Friday to about 150,000 spouses of active duty and reserve personnel as part of a larger Pentagon evaluation of the policy, asks recipients if they would want their husband or wife to leave the military earlier if the policy is changed.

It also asks whether the spouses would attend a social event if a gay or lesbian service member were in attendance with his or her partner.

In a "Dear Military Spouse" letter introducing the 44-question survey, Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained the questionnaire is part of his efforts to best implement a repeal of the law, should that occur.

"Your responses to this survey will help us assess the impact of a change in the 'don't ask, don't tell' law and policy on family readiness and recruiting and retention," Gates wrote. "We need you to participate."

The questions ask about subjects such as military retention ("Would a repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell' affect your preference for your spouse's plans for his or her future in the military?"), military life ("If a gay or lesbian service member lived in your neighborhood with their partner, would you stay on-base or would you try to move out?") and family readiness ("If the partner of a gay or lesbian service member participated in a family support program, would it affect your participation?").

The survey's first question asks the respondents' marital status and directs divorced or widowed spouses immediately to the final question, where all participants are asked to share written thoughts and opinions about the policy.

Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a University of California research institute studying the impact of gays in the military, said that while it's very important for the Pentagon to hear from military families about changes in policies such as "don't ask, don't tell," "Questions are being raised about gays and lesbians that would never be asked about other minorities."

"Would they ever ask, 'Would you be OK if you lived next to a Chinese officer?' It suggests gays and lesbians are second-class citizens," he said.

"That can send a signal that undermines what the Pentagon is trying to do, which is to promote equality," Belkin said.

Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, a nonprofit advocacy group for gay and lesbian troops and veterans, said in a statement that the survey is "poorly designed, biased and derogatory."

Nicholson, a former Army interrogator who was ousted from the military under "don't ask, don't tell," said the issue will have minimal impact on military spouses.

"The Pentagon should be concerned with real family readiness issues like excessive deployments, inadequate mental health screenings and support, low troop pay, reductions in housing subsidies for military families and inadequate spousal employment support," instead of spending money "on a politically motivated and unnecessary survey about gays," Nicholson said.

Calls to the Pentagon had not been returned by Tuesday afternoon.

J.D. Smith, co-director of the group OutServe (formerly Citizens for Repeal), a self-described underground organization of actively serving gay troops, said he predicts low participation in the survey, similar to the approximate 30 percent response rate the Pentagon said it has received to a separate survey sent directly to some 400,000 troops in July.

"It wouldn't be a big deal to military spouses if 'don't ask, don't tell' is repealed," Smith said.

The House of Representatives voted to repeal the policy in May as part of the defense authorization bill. The Senate Armed Services Committee passed a similar measure, but it has not yet been taken up by the full Senate.