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Rep.-elect Chris Gibson during deployment in Haiti. Photo: Gibson campaign
Rep.-elect Chris Gibson during deployment in Haiti. Photo: Gibson campaign

After their own service, Gibson and Owens divided on Don't Ask Don't Tell

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In the coming months, rank-and-file service-members will be dealing with big changes in the military culture, now that don't-ask-don't-tell has been repealed.

Two lawmakers who represent the North Country will have direct oversight over that process. Democrat Bill Owens from Plattsburgh and Republican Chris Gibson from Kinderhook both sit on the House Armed Services Committee.

Both men served as officers in the military and as Brian Mann reports, they have very different opinions about gays serving openly.

(NOTE: This story includes a correction from the broadcast version)

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

CORRECTION:  In this story, NCPR offered inaccurate context for one of Rep. Bill Owens' comments about Don't Ask-Don't Tell.

The following statement was made not after an interview with rank-and-file soldiers, but with Owens' father, a World War 2 veteran.

"We were sitting chatting one day and I said, 'What do you think?' And [a soldier said], 'About what?' In other words," Owens concluded, "this is not an issue."

The tape was provided to NCPR by another news organization and we misunderstood the context of his statement.

Owens has stated that he based his decision to vote for repeal of the measure after consulting with soldiers, their officers, and Pentagon leaders.

STORY

Chris Gibson’s 24 year career in the military spans what might be described as the Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell Era.

As an Army colonel who deployed to Iraq, Kosovo and Haiti, he also administered this controversial policy, removing two gay soldiers under his command.

"These were soldiers who revealed their sexual orientation," Gibson said on Monday, in an interview with public radio's Capital Pressroom program.

"We went through the process to eliminate them under the chapter proceedings."

In an interview yesterday with public radio’s Capital Pressroom program, Gibson – a Republican who takes office in January – said the soldiers he removed deserved to be honored for their service:

They served with honor," he insisted.

But Gibson says he’s not confident that integrating open gays and lesbians into the military can be done without conflict and controversy.

"Those that come into the military, there's a selection bias.  And they're brought up in communities often-times that embrace philosophical approaches aligned with the bible.  They have perspective on this, they feel that that [gay] lifestyle is immoral.  That is part of our armed forces right now."

Gibson added that he doesn't think the anti-gay culture in the military is "intractable."

Democrat Bill Owens also served in the military, as an active duty and reserve captain in the Air Force.  He served in the 1970s before don’t ask-don’t-tell was implemented.

In those days, being gay was taboo in much of the culture, not just for men and women in uniform.  He says he wasn’t aware of fellow airmen who were homosexual.

"To be truthful with you, in my experience, the issue never came up.  I'm sure that I did serve with folks who were gay and lesbian, but it was not obvious to me.  No one was ever inappropriate from my perspective.  And I don't see it causing, as a former member of the military, any significant issues."

Owens says in the lead-up to his vote in favor of repealing don’t ask-don’t tell, he spoke in depth with soldiers – including some of those more conservative small-town troops.  He says they seemed ready for the change.

(CORRECTED TEXT)

Owens says that even more telling than his perspective is the view of his 87-year-old father – who served as a gunner in World War II.

“There was a lot written in the paper a couple months ago about DADT and we were sitting at the table chatting and I said ‘what do you think?’” he said. “And he said ‘about what?’ In other words, this is not an issue. Here’s a guy who wasn’t concerned about who you would expect might be a little more conservative.”

And here’s where these two lawmakers differ the most.  Owens is convinced that implementing this change won’t affect combat readiness at a time when the United States is fighting two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I think that it makes a great deal of sense," Owens said. 

Gibson sees this very differently.  He thinks military leaders and rank-and-file soldiers will now have to spend precious down-time adjusting to a new culture, when they should be preparing for the next chapter in a tough fight.

"I'm concerned," Gibson said.  "Right now what I'd like to see our leadership decisively engaged in is bringing a rapid and successful conclusion to the war."

Overseeing this change will likely be a major issue for the Armed Services committee when both of these lawmakers head back to Washington in Christmas.

One wrinkle is that they’ll likely be dealing directly with another North Country politician – former congressman John McHugh, who as Secretary of the Army will take a lead in implementing the military’s integration.

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