The Best Defense

Mr. Skelton, come back!: They're chipping away at your PME legacy

By John T. Kuehn
Best Defense guest columnist

The recent passing of former Congressman Ike Skelton brings light upon a man who had a profound impact on those around him, including and perhaps especially those in the halls of the Congress and the Pentagon.

Ike Skelton represented a type of politician more suited to former times, a statesman, a moderate Democrat, and someone willing to compromise in order to achieve the greater good. In politics he had two overriding passions, the national security of the United States and the reform of the systems in place to provide for that security. It is the second passion I wish to address because Ike did not intend for his desires and passions vis-à-vis national security reform to diminish with his passing. But I and many others out there -- those who knew how fierce Ike was about implementing and protecting the reforms he helped legislate into law -- are concerned that with Ike gone, there is no similar politician in Washington ready to step up and continue the "good fight." I hope I am wrong.

Let me explain. Ike believed in the idea that the uniformed services served best when they acted as a team, what we today call "jointness," the joint action of the services to support national policies and objectives. Skelton believed that the best path to this end was through something known as joint professional military education (JPME), specifically professional military education for the various uniformed officer corps -- Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force, and Coast Guard. To this end, Ike was personally involved in drafting those parts of the famous Goldwater-Nichols defense reform legislation that implemented the JPME system that is in place today. Among its provisions, Ike stressed the importance of officers' study of military history as reflected in the following:

Another area that our panel report stressed was the study of military history, especially in helping to develop strategists. In our visit to Fort Leavenworth in 1988, the study of military history was confined to 51 hours and limited to the American experience of war in the 20th century. Army officers, especially those who will rise to command at the corps or theater level, need a thorough understanding of military history that reaches back over the ages.

Ike believed, as have many before him, that military history was the foundation for a well-rounded education for officers. After his visit to Fort Leavenworth mentioned above, the Command and General Staff College upped its history instruction to two hours of history a week for the entire academic year at the Army Command and General Staff Officer Course. This equated to 72 hours of total history instruction. Since 9/11 this program has been under constant pressure to decrease the number of history hours, resulting in a decrease to 60 hours from 2004-2007 as part of an overall decrease in student contact hours. At one point, while serving as the military history department curriculum developer, this author was pressured (unsuccessfully) to decrease the military history hours to pre-Skelton levels. Another blow to Skelton's legacy has been the removal of sister service joint-coded faculty billets at the nations' joint staff and war colleges in 2007 to support other "more important" new billets created since 9/11. Ike knew about these threats to his vision for JPME and was actively working, even though no longer in Congress, to correct them.

I met Ike Skelton in 2010, at the Harry Truman Library where he was the keynote speaker for the 60th anniversary commemoration of the Korean War. He was a kind, gracious, and thoughtful man. At the time, he was one of the most powerful congressmen on "the Hill," serving as chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and holding another round of hearings to examine and improve professional military education. However, he also seemed fragile, to have grown physically weaker in his long years in the service to his nation. Tragically, he was swept from office that fall, a casualty as politics moved more to the right in places like his home district in Missouri. Evidently, there was no room for a moderate reformer from Missouri in Congress.

Ike Skelton believed in moving forward, not backward. He will be missed and the best thing we can do to honor his memory is to continue to support and improve upon his reforms that served, and should continue to serve, this country so well. Farewell to a great American and patriot.

John T. Kuehn is the Major General William A. Stofft chair of historical research at the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College. He retired from the Navy as a commander in 2004 and earned his Ph.D. in history from Kansas State University in 2007. He graduated with distinction from Naval Postgraduate School in 1988. He won the Society of Military History Moncado Prize in 2010 and is the author of Agents of Innovation (2008), Eyewitness Pacific Theater (with D.M. Giangreco, 2008), and numerous articles and editorials.

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The Best Defense

Time to regulate military speech and conduct offensive to gays and women

By Rachel Natelson
Best Defense guest columnist

Over two years after the repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, a confluence of federal legislation promises to test the military's commitment to upholding the rights of LGBT servicemembers. In highlighting a growing tension between the obligation of employers to accommodate religious needs and a parallel mandate to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) and the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) together present a useful capsule of the emerging debate around how to balance competing civil rights visions.

Currently headed for the Senate after a series of committee reviews in the House, ENDA would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in most American workplaces. The bill is modeled after Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and, as such, contains parallel language regarding the distinct needs of religiously affiliated organizations. However, while Title VII simply permits religious organizations to give employment preference to members of their own religion, ENDA would exempt these organizations altogether from its purview, allowing religiously affiliated hospitals and universities to discriminate against employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Proponents of the exemption argue that in its absence, they would be required to violate their religious beliefs by condoning homosexuality.

In addition to animating policy debate, this tension between identity groups has also given rise to disputes on the ground. At Hewlett Packard, for example, an employee alleged that he was improperly terminated for failing to comply with the company's anti-harassment policy when he refused to remove from his cubicle a series of posters condemning homosexuality. The case reached a federal appeals court, which found that he was not discharged due to his religious beliefs but, rather, because he created a hostile and intolerant work environment for his colleagues.

This distinction between belief and conduct also informed a lower court decision concerning an AT&T employee's refusal to sign an agreement obligating all personnel to "recognize, respect and value" the differences among them. While the employee in question was willing to certify that he would not discriminate against or harass anyone, he maintained he could not "value" certain behavior without compromising his own religious beliefs. The court agreed with his premise, finding that the company could regulate the conduct, but not the beliefs, of its employees.

A similar tone has characterized discussions about how to reconcile the religious beliefs and equality rights of military personnel. Following the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the Department of Defense issued a memorandum outlining the impact of this development on specific policies within the military. In addressing anti-discrimination policy, the Pentagon indicated that, unlike race and gender, sexual orientation would not be deemed a protected class for purposes of diversity programming, tracking initiatives, and the Military Equal Opportunity program complaint resolution process. Instead, grievances would be processed through individual commanders or inspector general channels.

Almost three years later, this informal approach to addressing discrimination may well be further eroded by an NDAA amendment on religious accommodation for military personnel. A provision in the House-passed act, authored by Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), would amend an existing requirement to accommodate "the beliefs of a member of the armed forces reflecting ... conscience, moral principles, or religious beliefs," and instead mandate the accommodation of "beliefs, actions, and speech." In prohibiting commanders from regulating even offensive speech or conduct purportedly rooted in religious convictions, this provision is at odds with the repeal memo's assertions that "[h]arassment or abuse based on sexual orientation is unacceptable" and that servicemembers must "respect and serve with others who may hold different views and beliefs."

Apart from potentially sanctioning abusive conduct towards lesbian, gay, and bisexual servicemembers, the Fleming amendment could also provide cover for discrimination against other minorities in the military, including women seeking access to reproductive care. At a moment when the Pentagon promises to ease access to abortion care for rape victims, not to mention curtail the underlying sexual violence giving rise to this need, the military can ill afford to foster discrimination within its ranks. By regulating offensive speech and conduct, as other employers have done, it can balance the rights of religious members to maintain their beliefs with an equally compelling interest in respecting the dignity of others.

Rachel Natelson is an attorney specializing in the rights of military women. She has provided legal service to military personnel for several years. She formerly served as the legal director of the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), where she managed the legal service helpline. She is an active member of the National Lawyers Guild's Military Law Task Force. 

Sgt. Anthony Cruz/DVIDS