Cancerous Leaders Must Change Course

By Neal Simpson

The millennial generation (i.e.-E-1 through E-5) doesn’t seem to mind. The senior commanders understand the political implications, thus refuse to complain or publically question the decision. The young officers are a product of a generational sensitivity that transcends any personal or moral objections they once possessed. What remains are two distinct groups of service members—mid-level commanders/staff officers (i.e.-field grade) and senior enlisted leaders (i.e.-staff non-commissioned officers/chief petty officers.) These two groups represent the greatest challenge facing the full acceptance of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell within the ranks of the U.S. Armed Forces. While the willpower of their senior commanders and the general apathy or acceptance of their subordinate service members mitigate their resistance somewhat, the impact of toxic opinions and actions arising from members in this group will continue to have a lasting effect on the morale, welfare, and discipline of the force until a) their minds are changed or b) their most vocal mouthpieces are retired. One recent Marine Corps example illustrates the extent of this dangerous influence on the discipline and welfare of a unit.

A Marine battalion gathers for a physical training formation on the outskirts of camp. For this unit, the battalion formation is a relatively new occurrence, a product of a new commander whose desire for esprit de corps and unit cohesion is both novel and welcome. As the companies gather on the gray surface of the landing zone, they complete a series of post-workout stretches. It’s time for the battalion Sergeant Major to address the Marines and Sailors. After discussing the success of the Marine Corps birthday ball the previous week, and acknowledging the hard work of the Marines, he launches into a diatribe about the publicist of a famous celebrity who attended the unit’s ball. The publicist, a Hollywood-type, was openly gay, and this offended the Sergeant Major. The Sergeant Major proceeded to belittle the man for his flamboyant behavior, spikey hair (because nothing says ‘gay’ like spiked hair) and his accent (one can only assume at this point that the man spoke with some sort of subtle lisp.) As if this public, cowardly type of locker room-esque roasting were insufficiently inappropriate, the Sergeant Major continued his rant, describing the man as ‘faggoty’, ‘queer’, and an ‘effen homo.’ While the formation chuckled awkwardly at the Sergeant Major’s comments, the officers of the battalion turned to the battalion’s executive officer, eyes pleading for guidance on how to react to this blatant disregard of military policy and respect for basic human dignity. Did I mention this happened again a few weeks later? Unacceptable.

The point of this story is not to single out an individual leader, nor is it to illustrate the shortcomings of an entire service. The Marine Corps, as a service, has demonstrated a very successful post-repeal transition, and the number of reported incidents has been very low. What this incident does indicate, however, is how easy it is for a leader, whether officer or enlisted, to set a negative precedent, the potential for which is simultaneously real and frightening. If leaders expect their subordinates to enforce all rules and regulations, they must set the example. If leaders are unable to do so because of moral objections, they are obligated to resign or retire.

Service members are obligated to respect basic human rights, including the right of sexual orientation. Flippant use of the words ‘fag’, ‘queer’, or ‘homo’ must be squashed, as must the expression ‘that’s gay,’ especially when the situation is anything but.

When leaders allow themselves or others to violate policy because they are uncomfortable enforcing it, their actions undermine not only their own credibility, but also the integrity of the unit and its members. Those who use their position and rank as a bully pulpit are cowards, and their tenure as leaders must end swiftly and harshly. Service members, regardless of sexual orientation, deserve leaders who cast aside prejudices for the health and discipline of the organization.

Neal Simpson is a Captain in the United States Marine Corps, a combat veteran, and recent company commander whose blogger voice will help military leaders work through issues concerning Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal. Read more of his blogs here.

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