By Barbara Barrett, McClatchy Newspapers
WASHINGTON — A North Carolina gay-rights group is asking a leading Republican lawmaker on military issues to join its fight to repeal the Pentagon's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which bans gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.
However, North Carolina Rep. Sue Myrick, while a strong supporter of the military, isn't yet in line with many of the military's top officers, led by Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have called for the policy's repeal.
The issue is a rare one that divides the Pentagon's top leaders, along with much of the rank-and-file, and the GOP's socially conservative base.
Myrick, who's been a vocal opponent of gay rights, received a 91 percent rating from the American Conservative Union in 2008. In 2004, she was a leading supporter of legislation to keep states from recognizing same-sex marriage, and she told reporters that the topic triggered more calls and e-mails to her office than any other issue.
The nation's leading gay rights advocacy group, the Human Rights Campaign, has given Myrick a rating of "zero," the same as the state's other Republicans in the House of Representatives.
The Charlotte Rainbow Action Network for Equality, or CRANE, plans to rally Friday and launch its "March for Myrick" campaign. Matt Comer, a Charlotte resident and the group's organizer, said the group chose to focus on Myrick, who was elected to the House in 1994, because of her work on military issues.
"Representative Myrick has very much a pro-military, pro-national security record," Comer said. "In past couple years, she's spoken out on issues, especially when it comes to the war on terror. Since she does place such an importance on military readiness, it makes no sense she would not sponsor the military readiness bill."
In the next month, supporters hope to gather 13,500 plastic toy soldiers to deliver to Myrick's office at the end of March. The soldiers represent the estimated 13,500 troops who've been kicked out of the military for being gay since the policy took effect in 1993, Comer said. Since 2001, the number of troops discharged under the policy has declined, despite a massive increase in the size of the military.
In a statement to the Charlotte Observer, Myrick said she agrees with other officers, including Gens. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, and Norton Schwartz, the top Air Force officer, who argue that with the country at war, the issue needs more study.
"I support the position held by Gens. George Casey and Norton Schwartz, and believe that the military should finish its study on the impact of repealing the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy before any Congressional action is taken," Myrick said.
Comer said he hopes to meet with Myrick within the next month, but that he isn't optimistic that she'll support repealing the policy.
"The chances of her changing her mind and co-sponsoring this are slim to none," Comer said.
Lawmakers introduced H.R. 1283, the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, nearly a year ago in the House, with 188 co-sponsors. The bill would repeal the policy and ban discrimination in the military on the basis of sexual orientation for admissions and personnel actions.
There's a growing push in Washington to overturn "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which was put in place by President Bill Clinton. It prohibits gay troops from disclosing their sexual orientation, and it also prevents military leaders from asking about it.
President Barack Obama has pledged to end the policy, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Mullen told senators earlier this month that they support its repeal. They're already laying the groundwork for the change.
Michael Noftzger of Charlotte, a former Army psychological operations specialist who left the military in 2003 after serving four years, is one of those who could be affected by a policy change.
Noftzger, 28, received a medical discharge because of a bad back, but at the time his peers at Fort Bragg, N.C., had just discovered his sexual orientation. His back ailment was misdiagnosed, Noftzger said, and he wants to get back in uniform.
"I miss the camaraderie. I miss doing something that's important," Noftzger said. "I think serving in the military is one of the most important things someone can do for their country. I want that honor again."