FORT ALUDERDALE—At age 20, Mark LaFontaine found himself in the western Pacific as a seaman apprentice aboard the Coast Guard cutter Basswood. And then his shipmates figured out he was gay.
LaFontaine said he was discharged after a months-long journey through the military justice system.
Pompano Beach accountant, LaFontaine said it's difficult to talk about what happened even 20 years later. He's telling his story as "don't ask, don't tell" -- the federal law prohibiting openly gay men and lesbians from serving in the military -- is facing some of the strongest challenges since it went into effect in 1993.
- An article by an Air Force colonel in the latest issue of the official military journal Joint Force Quarterly calls for repealing the ban.
- Legislation to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" has 177 cosponsors — more than four out of 10 members of Congress.
- And speaking last week to a gay rights organization in Washington, President Barack Obama declared, "I will end ‘don't ask, don't tell.'"
The issue is high on the agenda for American Veterans for Equal Rights, a group of gay veterans whose biennial national convention runs through Sunday at various venues in Broward.
Some 13,000 service members have been discharged since "don't ask, don't tell" went into effect.
More than 300 had special linguistics training, including 60 critically needed Arabic speakers, said Nathaniel Frank, a senior research fellow at the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D- Miramar, a longtime member of the House Intelligence committee and outspoken opponent of the policy, said it hurts national security.
It's also expensive. The more conservative estimates of the cost of discharging and replacing gay and lesbian service members since 1994 is $400 million. "We're putting people out and then having to train something else to have to do their job," Hastings said.
The Broward Veterans Affairs Council, which covers Broward and South Palm Beach counties, favors repeal, said its president, Bill Kling. The Broward County Commission and the Oakland Park and Wilton Manors commissions have passed resolutions urging repeal.
Kling, who served in the Navy during World War II, said banning gays from serving openly is discriminatory. If it's repealed, "I don't really foresee any problems."
That view isn't universal. Allen West, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq and as a military contractor in Afghanistan, said repeal isn't a good idea.
"What happens in the barracks and what happens in these close quarters situations is unlike anything in the civilian world," West said. "I don't think this is something that would be widely welcomed in the military at this time."
Openly gay service members are allowed by 25 other countries and there isn't any evidence that a military team can't bond and work together because of their presence, said Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America.
"Our straight soldiers are having to share foxholes and ships with openly gay Brits," he said.
While some service members might be uncomfortable, Frank said no one who signed up to fight in Afghanistan signed up to be comfortable.
"American soldiers are not nearly that fragile," he said. "Burly American Marines who up in the mountains of Tora Bora [Afghanistan] are not going to wilt if they have to shower with a gay Marine."
Anthony Man can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4550. Read documents on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" on the Broward Politics blog at SunSentinel.com/browardpolitics