WASHINGTON - The number of military personnel dismissed for homosexuality jumped 17 percent last year, to 1,212, the most since the controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy on homosexuality was implemented in 1994, according to Pentagon figures released yesterday.
The largest contributor to the increase came in a spike in numbers from the Army, and particularly at Fort Campbell, Ky., where two years ago a gay soldier was killed by fellow soldiers. Homosexual-dismissal figures for the Army leaped to 573 for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, from 271 the previous year; 161 of the dismissals were at Fort Campbell.
Dr. Paul Gott, a surgeon dismissed from Fort Campbell in January after acknowledging he was gay, said he wasn't surprised.
Gott tended to Pfc. Barry Winchell, 21, after Winchell was bludgeoned to death July 5, 1999. A soldier who believed Winchell was gay was later convicted of murder.
Gott was shaken by the killing.
"Somewhere in the back of your mind is the 'you could be next' sort of thing," said Gott, who now lives in Seattle.
Gay-rights advocates contended the figures show an anti-gay atmosphere persists at Fort Campbell. They charge that the upward drift in the numbers - now their highest since 1987, when they reached 1,380 - shows the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is failing.
"They don't feel safe under this policy and they're losing faith that the leadership is going to step up and protect them," said C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of the Service Members Legal Defense Network, an advocacy group in Washington.
But military officials have denied systematic mistreatment of gays. And some officers speculated that many dissatisfied soldiers may be declaring themselves to be homosexual as a quick and easy way to leave the military.
The "don't ask" policy is intended to allow homosexuals to serve as long as they commit no homosexual acts and do not declare their homosexuality.
Under the policy, when troops declare they are gay, their superiors are instructed to take them at their word and allow them to depart without an investigation. This rule means that in the Army, for example, soldiers can be out in as few as four days, in some cases.
Debate about treatment of gays in the ranks grew after the murder of Winchell. An investigation found that commanders had ignored reports that Winchell had been taunted for months; but separate inquiries concluded that there was not an atmosphere of homophobia on the base.
While the Army numbers jumped in fiscal 2000, figures for the Air Force declined markedly. Departures fell to 177 from 352.
Capt. David Westover, a spokesman for the Air Force, said the Air Force implemented procedures that make it harder for basic trainees to leave the service by saying they're gay. Westover said more effort is made to see whether the person is being truthful.
The Navy's figures rose to 358 from 314 the previous year, while the Marine Corps number rose to 104 from 97.
Of the 1,212 total departures, only 106 resulted from the commission of homosexual acts, and the remainder from statements.
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.