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Army discharge stats suggest that wartime breeds a new attitude toward soldiers who are 'different'

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Bleu Copas, 24, was discharged from the army in 2006 because he was gay, but his treatment has become rare in the years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Courtesy of Bleu Copas)

Bleu Copas, 24, was a model soldier. Recruited in 2002, he transferred to Fort Bragg, N.C., two years later and became part of the renowned 82nd Airborne division. Fit, well-educated, and patriotic, he had only one obstacle to overcome. He was gay.

Though the military has operated a “don't ask, don’t tell” policy since 1993, Copas, from Johnson City, Tenn., has denied his orientation was ever an issue.

“Throughout my whole time in the military, my colleagues realized my orientation, but it was never a problem,” he said. He even claimed that half the residents of his barracks in Monterey, Calif., seemed to be gay. “There are several that I know serving openly in the desert right now.”

And, although Copas was honorably discharged two years ago with full health benefits as a result of a particularly vicious e-mail campaign to out him, Copas views his discharge as increasingly archaic. “I think, ironically, everything now is falling into place regarding discrimination against homosexuals. I was the victim of a very aggressive campaign. I would have been fine otherwise,” he said.

Newly released figures, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, might just support his belief. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy still results in hundreds of discharges, but the numbers of discharges have fallen precipitously.

In 2001, 640 soldiers were discharged for homosexuality. In 2006, the number dropped to 282–a 56 percent reduction.

“I think that people will look at Afghanistan and Iraq as the moment when lesbian and gay service members prove themselves to be part of military,” said Victor Maldonado, a spokesman for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an organization that campaigns against military discrimination against homosexuals. “More and more service members are serving openly and having no repercussions. They simply are gay, and it evidently does not affect their relationship with their colleagues or command.”

Gays are not the only minority groups benefiting from a new wave of military tolerance. Overweight soldiers and those with alcohol and drug issues have also been granted a reprieve of sorts. The new army statistics show that discharges for these transgressions have also fallen precipitously. Surprisingly, the Bush administration has become the toast of a number of minority advocacy groups.

In 1998, 2,224 soldiers were discharged from the army for not meeting body fat standards. In 2006 that figure had fallen to 589-–a 74 percent drop in eight years.

“These statistics should be seen against the background of the army trying very hard to maintain its overall numbers,” said Dr. Russell Pate, professor of health sciences at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina and a military adviser on obesity. In his opinion: “They’ve been granting waivers to the weight exclusion program in the interest of meeting targets.”

Nathan M. Banks Sr., spokesman for the Department of the Army, dismisses such charges. “Soldiers realize how important it is to stay in shape. Especially in time of war, the heat in Iraq can get up in the 100s, soldiers carry body armor that weighs over 60 pounds.”

Whatever the reason, Lynn McAfee, of the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination, is ecstatic. “I think it’s great that they finally understand our value in society,” she said. “Now they finally understand that everyone can play a part in defending our country.

“It’s absurd that as desperate as we are now for soldiers,” she continued, “even though it’s declining we’re still kicking out people of worth and people of value because of how they look. But I’d like to think this is a turning point.”

Recently $6 million of federal money was granted to the Troop Recruit Improvement (TRIM) program run by the Nutrition Research Council, which hopes to “improve recruit readiness and fitness by determining and combating the causes of childhood and adolescent obesity.”

Dr. Andrew Young, Chief of the Military Nutrition Division in Natick, Mass., was involved in constructing the TRIM project. “We definitely have seen that soldiers are not immune to the obesigenic environmental factors of this country and the rest of the world,” he said. “The military now recognizes that some of the soldiers in the army and probably other services are having trouble maintaining healthy body weight.”

Despite the decline in the numbers of discharges for obesity, Young claims obesity is rising in the army. “The environmental pressures are growing,” he said. “More and more soldiers have duties that are not as active, not all soldiers have very physically demanding jobs. Some have a relatively small physical component. The environment promotes fat gain unless we are aggressive to counteract those pressures.”

Beyond weight and orientation, others who have found stronger footing and support in the military’s seemingly kinder, gentler atmosphere are those who have struggled with alcohol and drugs.

Failure in the drug rehabilitation program resulting in discharge has fallen from 164 in 2002, during the first full year of war, to a mere 51 in 2006, though the rate of failure was not available. Failure in the alcoholism rehabilitation program has fallen 271 in 2002 to 143 in 2006.

Robert J. Lindsey, of the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, thinks this is a welcome progression.

“Military discrimination against alcohol and drugs users has certainly been an issue of huge concern in the past,” he said. “There is absolutely no question that addiction to alcohol and drugs should be treated as a health problem not as a disciplinary one.

“It’s encouraging to see the numbers declining,” he continued. “We hope that means more people are getting help.” Although, he added, “It could mean they are more desperate for troops.”

E-mail: mk2939@columbia.edu