They Didn't Ask; He Didn't Tell

Is The Pentagon's Policy Toward Gays In The Military Working?

In the 10 years since the Pentagon announced its new policy towards gays in the military - the policy known as "don't ask, don't tell" - almost 10,000 men and women have been forced out of the armed services.

One of them is Lt. Col. Steve Loomis, once a rising star, and a decorated war hero.

In his case, the Army never asked about his homosexuality, and he didn't tell. And yet despite his long and distinguished career, he was kicked out -- just eight days shy of being eligible for his pension. Correspondent Morley Safer reports.

"It's my private issue, my private life. It was none of the Army's damn business," says Loomis, a gay man, career soldier and decorated hero. He came to the Vietnam Memorial to recall his worst day in a terrible war. He was a 2nd Lieutenant, leading his platoon through a village in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

"We left the village. And not more than 300 yards outside the village we were ambushed. In the course of that, I did what I was supposed to do," recalls Loomis.

Exposed to hostile gunfire, Loomis says he helped all his men make it out that day, all but one: "Feb. 8th, 1970 ... the letter home was difficult. I had to write that letter."

Loomis was awarded two bronze stars, one for heroism. He was later given a Purple Heart after being wounded in action - three medals to a man whom the military now deems not fit to fight.

There are 58,000 odd names on the memorial wall – and nobody cared about their sexual orientation.

"No, not in Vietnam. You know, when you're in Vietnam, and we were in the mud and dust of Vietnam, and we slept side by side," says Loomis. "When the rounds were coming at you, you know, you huddled next to each other. And they didn't really care, you know, what your orientation was, whether you were gay or not."

After Vietnam, Loomis spent nine years in the Army Reserves, and then returned to active duty, rising through the ranks with glowing reviews: "exceptionally talented," "superb leadership," "rock solid integrity."

Did Loomis know anyone on the base who was gay?

"No way, absolutely not," says Loomis. "I kept all of my relations completely separate between my military life and duties and my private life. That was absolute."

Loomis was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, and had been selected for promotion to full colonel. After a ceremony, at which he was given his fourth meritorious service award, he returned to his home off base. Right away, he knew something was wrong.

Someone had set Loomis' house ablaze. His career was about to go up in flames as well.

The police told Loomis they had a suspect, Michael Burdette, a 19-year-old PFC with whom Loomis had had two sexual encounters. They'd met when Loomis offered the private a ride home from the Fort Hood movie theater. Burdette was not in the colonel's chain of command.

Loomis took pictures of Burdette, who he said agreed to pose for the photographs.

"That was initially how we met. I asked him that, if I could. And he knew that was the situation. Again, it was with advice and consent," says Loomis. "And it remained a private issue. It has remained a private issue. It will remain a private issue."

Burdette confessed he was afraid that the nude photos and video that Loomis had taken would not remain private, and he wanted them destroyed. But Burdette never asked Loomis for the photos. Instead, he set Loomis' house on fire.

Loomis said he knew there was going to be serious problems after Burdette became a suspect.

But he didn't know the half of it. The local fire chief, William Rippy, had confiscated a videotape found in Loomis' camcorder, thinking it might contain evidence of the arson. It didn't. It was a sexually explicit video of Loomis and other men, which Rippy turned over to the Army.

"He had no further business looking at that tape or anything else, nor did the Army," says Loomis.

The tape was an accidental but devastating discovery. The Army found Loomis guilty of homosexual behavior and conduct unbecoming an officer. He will receive only a small reserve pension, because his discharge came just eight days short of 20 years of active duty.

What difference did those eight days make?

"It made a lot of difference," says Loomis. "My lawyer and I calculated that over the next 20 years of retirement that it would have approached $1 million in 20 years in value. That's a lot to lose."

But retired Col. John Smith, a senior attorney for the U.S. Army, says Loomis violated a trust. He believes that Loomis' behavior was predatory and reckless.

"It is a matter of conduct. It is a matter of conduct which showed this, these grave misjudgments along the way," says Smith. "And that is eventually what got Lt. Col. Loomis eliminated from the service."

"If a person uses the influence or position that they're in, that's one thing. But I did not. I did not at any time with that person," says Loomis of his relationship with the 19-year-old private.

"I would say, and I would continue to argue, that there's an inherent coercion between a lieutenant colonel and a private first class. Between a 45-year-old and a 19-year-old," says Smith.

But there are military men who think Loomis was dealt with too harshly.

"Here's a guy with 19 years and 51 weeks of service, a purple heart, two bronze stars. He just had his house torched, for heaven's sakes. His service had to count for something. If he had killed the private, his service would've counted for something," says John Hutson, a retired Admiral, and the former Judge Advocate General of the Navy.

"You know, it's like the popular country song, you know, 'I know what they were feeling, but what were they thinking?'"

Admiral Hutson thinks the time has come to reconsider "don't ask, don't tell." He is the highest-ranking person in military circles to call for an end to the policy.

What is he suggesting? That gays should simply be themselves, be openly gay within the military?

"That's what I'm suggesting. You can be openly gay, right now, and serve with the FBI, DEA, Secret Service," he says. "You can serve in the police departments and the fire departments in major cities across the country. You can serve in the military of Great Britain, Israel, Australia, Canada, France, Germany. You cannot serve openly and honorably in the armed forces of Belarus, Croatia, Russia and the United States of America."

And he says that's not great company: "I think that we have the opportunity now. We've matured as a society. We're more sophisticated now in that we can change. And if you can change, then I think we have the moral imperative that we must change."

Society has changed in its acceptance of gays over the past decade, but the military remains an institution unto itself, governed by separate laws and a separate culture.

"The military has to obviously have its own kind of rules and orders because it's asking people to do things that aren't commonly done in civilian life, like sacrificing your life," says Charles Moskos, a military scholar and professor of sociology at Northwestern University.

In 1993, he helped end a standoff between a liberal President Clinton and an entrenched Pentagon by devising a middle ground that he coined "don't ask, don't tell."

"It's what Winston Churchill said about democracy: 'It's the worst system possible except for any other,'" says Moskos, who believes the policy is necessary because allowing gays to serve openly would violate the privacy of straight soldiers and undermine good order and discipline.

"The real issue is privacy. There are three times in life when you're forced to live with people you might not otherwise choose in intimate circumstances: the military, jail, and freshman dorm. ... What about the straight person's rights of privacy? He's just supposed to ignore it," adds Moskos.

But Loomis says it was his privacy that was violated by the Army when it used his own private property – even though they were pornographic movies - as evidence against him.

"Those had nothing to do with the performance of any job that I did, or anyone else did. They were private, again consensual," says Loomis. "They were no different than heterosexual soldiers frequently do make in their own relationships. And they never come forward."

Could the Army not turn a blind eye, but just have said 'Now, with this guy's record, with his wonderful service that he's given us, let's give him the eight days and give him his pension?'

"The Army could say that. It would be wrong," says Col. Smith. "It would be wrong because an action is required to hold people accountable."

Loomis spends his days working the family farm in Oklahoma. He's filed a lawsuit to try to repair the damage he believes was caused, not by his own acts, but by the criminal acts of an arsonist, and the deeply held prejudices of the military.

"That's the law. That is what it is," says Smith. "If you engage in homosexual conduct, you are going to be asked to leave."

What does Loomis hope to get from his lawsuit?

"I want to get my retirement benefits back. No. 2, I want it established that I served honorably and well with the military. And No. 3, I want the courts to show that 'don't ask, don't tell' is a policy that just doesn't work and is absolutely unfair.

60 Minutes made repeated requests to the Army and the Pentagon for comment on Lt. Col. Loomis' case, and the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. They wouldn't talk about either.

We asked. They wouldn't tell.