Chuck Hagel and Our Diverse Military

As a county, the United States is beginning to wrap up the longest war in our history. And while operational decisions are and will continue to be a priority, at the end of two massive wars, greater focus needs to be placed on the needs of our military personnel and veterans.

To be frank, I cannot believe that Senator Hagel is likely to even consider many of the pressing needs of our military and veterans a priority, let alone take proactive steps to address our problems.  Hagel, while he has shown a willingness to challenge unnecessary waste of lives and spending, nevertheless has a history indicating a great deal of negative baggage toward some of those whose lives and futures would be in his hands as Secretary of Defense.

We have only been without a total ban of gay, lesbian and bisexual service-members for just over two years.  And although they’re no longer forced to either lie or be kicked out of the military, we still deny equal benefits and compensation to same-sex families under DOMA.  Local support groups for military spouses still work to deny support to the loved ones of LGB military waiting while their spouses, parents and partners are deployed. The Pentagon has recently been blocking a whole host of LGBT related websites (while failing to filter their anti-gay counterparts) and responding to questions with bizarre obfuscation about “operational security.”

Yet the same Democratic president that removed the injustice of DADT did not see a history of anti-gay bigotry by Senator Hagel to be a problem.  Because, well, that ambassador he attacked publicly for being “openly, aggressively gay” Hagel totally apologized. To a television camera. I might give Hagel more credit if he’d had the guts to contact James Hormel personally and apologize (something Hormel himself observed when he refused to accept a public show-apology).

I have not received an apology. I thought this so-called apology, which I haven’t received but which was made public, had the air of being a defensive move on his part… made only in service of his attempt to get the nomination.
If [his original comment] were made today, it would be clearly disqualifying.

In making his apology a matter of public comment with no indication he wanted to make personal amends, I don’t believe Senator Hagel has even begun to shed his bigoted ideas about gay people. Certainly not when his description of the 1998 attack was to call his words “insensitive.” The mere fact that he thought that his vicious attack was merely insensitive and not indicative of serious prejudice shows he hasn’t moved on at all.  No amount of lip service is going to count; I expect to see real action to show his convictions have changed.

Senator Hagel voted multiple times against adding sexual orientation protections to hate crimes legislation. This combined with the fact that three separate times he earned a 0% rating from the Human Rights Campaign* on his voting record on LGBT issues including hate crimes legislation and employment protections, means I regard his newfound public thoughtfulness about gay military families with extraordinary suspicion.

We have a military with pervasive and systemic sexual harm toward women.  A terrifying percentage of women deployed in combat zones reported sexual assault and rape. Reporting in December of a Veterans Affairs study indicated that in war zone deployment nearly 23% of women reported being sexually assaulted or raped; almost 49% reported being sexually harassed. It also found that 47% of those surveyed reported the individual who attacked or harassed them was a superior officer, leaving them very little recourse.

We have a military system where women’s healthcare -even in cases of rape- is dictated by conservative religious priorities rather than sound medical consideration; we only just gave women whose medical care is military the same consideration that all other rape victims supposedly have. We know the horrific toll this outrageous, unconstitutional and outdated policy took on women in uniform, particularly when victims are deployed overseas in countries without safe reproductive health care. We have strong evidence that female victims of rape in the military were frequently re-victimized and discharged on phony pretenses.

Last year, a group of mothers in the military decided to show their support for feeding their children by taking lovely and sweet photographs of themselves feeding their children while in uniform. Yet a state national guard supervisor actually claimed this was a violation of regulations, while others insisted these women were “disgracing” their uniforms. And while the Air Force clarified that according to regulations, there is no issue here at all, the outrage directed at women doing something so harmless as feeding their children is simply further proof of a deeply sexist military culture that needs to be examined.

We have a naval force that only just de-segregated attack submarines by sex. And our military still prohibits women from officially serving in combat deployment, though this is more of a matter in principle than in practice as rules governing combat situations have been relaxing over the years.

Where can we expect Senator Hagel to fall with keeping these women’s and veterans’ best interests in mind? Will he see the ongoing system of ignoring and minimizing sexual violence and harassment as a problem or will he even be able to see past his biases to grasp the full and desperate need for change?

Senator Hagel is unequivocably anti-choice. Between 1998 and 2003, he voted four separate times to continue a ban on abortion at military hospitals. And his abortion stance hasn’t wavered from his stated positions from 1995, where he declared his opposition to abortion in cases of rape and incest because those exceptions weren’t “relevant” to public debate on abortion because he believes rapes don’t result in pregnancy frequently enough to give a shit.

Hagel has never, to my knowledge, supported or advocated for legislation leveling the financial playing field for women. He has on multiple occasions voted against measures that would ensure that funds were allocated to include business and financial interests of women and racial minorities. He also follows the same anti-sex, control of women and sexuality policies that show he’s not simply anti-abortion, but is unwilling to promote policies proven to actually prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortions. Hagel has voted against bills that would increase sex education and contraception use.

We have extensive incidents of promotion of Christianity within the military. Non-Christians and especially atheists face hostility and threats. I wish I could say I was surprised that the President has chosen to nominate a man who supported teacher-led prayer in public schools. But this president is himself a Christian and has repeatedly shown a willingness to promote faith in places it simply doesn’t belong.

In view of all of this, I will put it simply: can we trust this man to head up a Pentagon where these are the issues that desperately need attention?

That isn’t to say I doubt his deep dedication to the military. He is absolutely one of our war heroes. It’s noteworthy that he would be the first enlisted soldier as well as the first Vietnam veteran take that position. Whatever my concerns about how he will treat different classes of people within the military, Senator Hagel cares about the military and the incredible physical and mental scars that military combat leaves.  In 2008, Hagel acted with others to call for desperately needed assistance for those coming home.

“Since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there has been a significant increase in suicides among active-duty soldiers.  This is a reality our country must face as we are engaged in two conflicts.  This legislation will enhance and strengthen the Defense Department’s suicide prevention programs for all active-duty military personnel.  It is critical for our service members to be provided with the necessary mental health services they deserve.  There can be no higher priority for America than our soldiers and their families,” said Senator Hagel.

In a time when our deployed and returning soldiers face greater risk from suicide than enemy fire, this is absolutely the kind of mindset needed. We should be ashamed of the backlog for health care, mental or physical. The waiting times for disability evaluations for our veterans is unacceptable. There is no justification for a system that allows veterans to die before their benefits come through.

And I trust Chuck Hagel to care enough to make this a priority.  At least, for the members of the military he feels no bias toward. But for the countless abused and raped women discharged or chased out of the military, I can’t trust him. For those families of LGB service-members he’s merely paid lip-service to since the end of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (which he supported), I think we’d be fools to believe they’re on his mind. For those atheists (and various other non-Christians) we know are in foxholes, I believe he will turn a blind eye to harassment, pressure and subtle discrimination.

Senator Hagel loves the military and those in uniform. In many ways, that’s a wonderful thing in a Secretary of Defense. But people also have a tendency to refuse to see the flaws, bigotry and unintentional harm from that which they love. And we can’t afford that kind of blindness.

* By comparison, he received an 11% rating from the NAACP in 2006.

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