SAN FRANCISCO -- Aaron Belkin was outraged.
The soft-spoken college professor had gotten a tip that the military was discharging Arabic linguists for being gay, at the very time the country was desperately in need of such interpreters to translate documents and interrogate suspects in the war on terrorism.
Working fromhis office at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Belkin put one of the fired linguists in touch with a reporter, who told his story to the world.
Then, Belkin and his team put together a series of meticulously researched studies that concluded dismissing openly gay men and women from the military is not only bad policy, it's bad for national security.
Looking back, Belkin said, the revelation that Arabic linguists were being dismissed simply for being homosexual may have been a turning point in the debate over gays in the military.
"I think that's when the light bulb went off in people's minds and they said, 'Ah-ha! Discrimination is bad for military readiness,"' Belkin said.
If the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy barring gay men and lesbians from serving openly is ever killed, Belkin will be credited as one of the gravediggers.
The Palm Center, the think tank that Belkin founded more than 11 years ago at UC-Santa Barbara, has become one of the country's leading authorities on "don't ask, don't tell" and its impact on military readiness.
The center's studies are cited frequently by "don't ask, don't tell" opponents to show not only that the policy is discriminatory but that it deprives the military of talented men and women and puts national security at risk.
Belkin has given so many media interviews on "don't ask, don't tell" that he stopped counting years ago. He also has testified at congressional hearings, served as an expert witness in a court case challenging "don't ask, don't tell," and has frequently given lectures at military academies and colleges on the need to overturn the policy.
Belkin, now an associate professor of political science at San Francisco State University, believes the center is most effective when others co-opt its research to argue for repealing "don't ask, don't tell."
"That is one thing that I'm very proud of -- to see generals and Republicans making arguments based on our research and not even crediting us," he said. "And why should they? (Repealing the ban) is what's important."
Just a few weeks ago, Belkin was confident "don't ask, don't tell" would soon be a relic of the past.
Polls show the public overwhelmingly supports lifting the 17-year-old ban. A federal judge in California had ruled the policy unconstitutional. President Barack Obama has pledged to overturn "don't ask, don't tell." The House already has voted for repeal, and the Senate appeared on the verge of doing the same.
But last month, the repeal campaign suffered a major setback when Senate Republicans refused to allow debate on a measure that would have done away with "don't ask, don't tell." Democrats are promising to bring the bill back up for a vote again after the November elections, but all of a sudden, what once seemed like a sure thing is now in doubt.
"We had the wind at our backs," Belkin said. "Now we're at a dead standstill."
Belkin's interest in "don't ask, don't tell" can be traced to what he calls his longstanding "fascination-repulsion relationship" with the military.
As a child in Cleveland, he spent hours building model airplanes and studying the World Book Encyclopedia's entry on World War II. All through college, he studied military matters while asking himself, "Why would anyone join an organization where they have to kill someone?"
In grad school, Belkin came out as a gay man. He also noticed that a lot of the arguments that both sides were making on "don't ask, don't tell" were not based on facts. "You could even say people were fabricating," he recalls.
At UC-Santa Barbara, where he worked as an associate professor of political science, Belkin formed a research institute to try to make sure the debate was informed by evidence, not emotion. Originally called the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military, the institute was later rechristened with the less clunky, more PR-friendly name, the Palm Center.
Over the years, the center has tapped a network of scholars and researchers from around the world to produce report after report questioning the wisdom behind barring gays from serving openly in the armed forces.
But the center's biggest contribution may be that it has helped reframe the "don't ask, don't tell" discussion in terms of military readiness instead of civil rights, Belkin said.
Early on, opponents of the ban built their case around the argument that the policy was discriminatory, while supporters claimed that barring gays and lesbians from serving openly was necessary for military cohesion.
One of the center's studies looked at 25 other countries that have allowed gay men and women to serve openly in the military. "Not a single one has reported an aggregate decline in (military) cohesion, morale, readiness," Belkin said.
Last year, the center came out with another report showing that Obama can issue an executive order suspending "don't ask, don't tell" dismissals during a state of national emergency.
Once the center's report became public, activists, the press and some members of Congress began to ask, "Why isn't Obama doing anything?" Belkin said.
Belkin is convinced the political pressure caused the White House to rededicate itself to pushing for repeal and prompted the military to begin a study on the effect of allowing gays to serve openly. The study is due in December.
Not everyone is impressed with Belkin's work.
The center's "so-called scholarship is based on unrealistic thinking at best," said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, which opposes lifting the ban.
Donnelly concedes that she sometimes cites the center's research when it helps make her point. But she argues that the center's researchers are activists, not the objective experts they claim to be. "I don't think they live in the real world," she said.
Belkin said the Palm Center's work is not done as long as "don't ask, don't tell" remains in place.
"The people who still support this policy, with due respect, sound almost insane when they try to defend," Belkin said. "There are simply no rational arguments left to defend firing gay and lesbian troops. And everybody knows that."
E-mail reporter Michael Collins at collinsm(at)shns.com.