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The politics of promotion: Bush's latest candidate for three-star general faces strong opposition from gay activists--but some say the opposition has made him more sensitive to gay issues.

It was a military casualty, but in a time of peace. As 21-year-old Pfc. Barry Winchell lay sleeping on his cot at Fort Campbell, Ky., in 1999, he was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat wielded by a fellow soldier. Even after it was revealed that Winchell was targeted because he was believed to be gay, it took over a month after Winchell's death for routine antiharassment regulations to be implemented at Fort Campbell.

How was the Army base's commander, Maj. Gen. Robert Clark, held accountable for the brutal slaying that took place on his watch? President Bush recommended that Clark be promoted to three-star general. And after the Senate Armed Services Committee failed to act on the nomination last year, Bush renominated Clark in March, expecting less opposition now that the Senate has a narrow Republican majority. If approved, Clark would serve as commander of the Fifth U.S. Army at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where he is currently deputy commanding general.

"The issue is leadership. At any time, but especially in time of war, America needs strong leaders," says C. Dixon Osburn, executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a gay group opposing Clark's nomination. "We've made it clear that Clark's confirmation would send the wrong message."

But as the Senate prepares to take up the nomination again, Clark has launched an unusual behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign to win confirmation. In a closed-door meeting with members of the Armed Services Committee, Clark has argued, according to a source familiar with the nomination, that he moved quickly to address the harassment problem at Fort Campbell in the wake of the murder, cobbling together a comprehensive antiharassment policy where none had existed. (Clark did not respond to The Advocate's interview requests.)

Clark also made the case that two service members implicated in the murder received stiff punishment for the crime, sending a message that harassment and brutality would not be tolerated. Pvt. Calvin Glover of Sulphur, Okla., who admitted wielding the bat, was sentenced to life in military prison. Spc. Justin Fisher of Lincoln, Neb., was given a 12 1/2-year sentence for crimes including lying to investigators and obstructing the investigation into the killing.

Clark's defense of his performance on a gay-related issue may be one sign that military leaders are treating antigay bias far more seriously than in the past. Nonetheless, Osburn is not buying Clark's spin. "The fact remains that when commanders at Fort Bragg [N.C.] found out about skinhead violence on their base, they made it clear that such hateful behavior would not be tolerated and it was stopped," he says. "By comparison, General Clark did not send a similarly decisive message."

In a January 16 letter to the Armed Services Committee opposing the nomination, SLDN cited a 2000 Army Inspector General report, which found that Clark failed before Winchell's death to order required training aimed at combating antigay harassment and that this was one of the conditions creating a hostile environment. Numerous personnel members in the chain of command were aware of Winchell's allegations about the Fort Campbell environment before he was attacked, the report said. SLDN also contends that Clark failed to even contact Winchell's mother, Patricia Kutteles, about the murder of her son and to express his condolences.

But Clark has won over at least one prominent unofficial adviser to SLDN who is familiar with Clark's arguments. This adviser contends that Osburn has chosen to focus too much on Clark and not enough on the Army's institutional reluctance to take on antigay harassment and violence. Clark, this source says, was constrained in his response by the Judge Advocate General, the military's legal arm, because Clark was the convening authority on the courts-martial of Glover and Fisher. He also blames the Army Inspector General for a report "whitewashing" the antigay facts of the murder.

"What it comes down to is that having gone through this experience, Clark has been sensitized to the issue of antigay harassment," the adviser told The Advocate on the condition of anonymity. "I think SLDN would be better served attacking the Army leadership issues to correct the problems rather than attacking General Clark for his personal behavior. The Army itself had failed to issue the training material. My concern is that the Army has offered the highest level of dialogue in SLDN's history. That access and dialogue may be in jeopardy if it continues to insist on attacking General Clark. In Washington, you have a choice of playing inside ball and making progress or playing outside ball and making none."

Osburn sticks by SLDN's strategy. "We've been critical of the Army when we need to, and praised the Army when we needed to," he says. "But none of that takes away from responsibility that Gen. Clark has--and had--to his soldiers."

The battle over Clark's nomination comes as SLDN and other advocates for gay and lesbian service members struggle to gain traction in the campaign against "don't ask, don't tell." In its annual study of discharges, SLDN announced March 25 that the armed services reported 906 "don't ask, don't tell" discharges last year, down from 1,273 in 2001 and the lowest number since 1996.

SLDN contends the decline reflects the military's reluctance to discharge service members during Operation Iraqi Freedom, when the demand for personnel is high. Even though military conflict has historically brought change to military personnel policy, the White House and the GOP-controlled Congress appear to be in no mood to address "don't ask, don't tell," especially during what could be a protracted war in Iraq.

The Armed Services Committee had not acted on the nomination by The Advocate's press time. But whatever the outcome, the fight could spur change in the long run. "There's no question that this serves as a wake-up call to military leaders that Clark's handling of the Winchell murder was terribly wrong," says Alan M. Steinman, a retired admiral in the U.S. Coast Guard who has publicly opposed Clark's confirmation. "It puts everyone on notice that they'd better do a better job implementing antiharassment policies. This was an entirely preventable murder, and the last thing we need right now is our own soldiers fighting each other."
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Title Annotation:George W. Bush, Major General Robert Clark
Author:Bull, Chris
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 29, 2003
Words:1037
Previous Article:Family life during wartime; "don't ask, don't tell" is keeping America's gay soldiers in the closet as they fight overseas--but what is it doing to...
Next Article:A channel of our own. (notes from a blond).
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