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Don't Ask, Don't Tell

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Sunday, January 31, 2010

I don't get it.

Since 1993, more than 13,000 soldiers have been discharged from the military under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) policy. Countless others are effectively denied access to mental health and other services because they can't tell.

In 2006, a blue ribbon commission concluded that the policy -- at that point -- had cost the military some $360 million because of the loss of qualified and trained soldiers and the need to replace them. How much it has cost the men and women who love this country and want to serve and protect it is just incalculable. At a time when our military is strained fighting two wars, why would anyone exclude a person simply because of who they are?

The president's call to repeal this dated and cruel compromise was met with cheers in the hall, but within hours, the old men were lining up to oppose it. I have the greatest respect for John McCain and his service to this country, but what made sense for the military 40 years ago is not necessarily what makes sense today. Military leaders from Colin Powell to Mike Mullen to John Shalikashvili -- current and former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- have all spoken against the policy. As Gen. Shalikashvili wrote in 2007: "Our military has been stretched thin by our deployments in the Middle East, and we must welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job."

DADT punishes soldiers if they so much as reveal their sexual orientation. Under the policy, as explained by the Pentagon, "the military will discharge members who engage in homosexual conduct, which is defined as a homosexual act, a statement that the member is homosexual or bisexual, or a marriage or attempted marriage to someone of the same gender." A gay soldier who says he is gay is subject to discharge for that statement.

Morale? That was the excuse I kept hearing from members of Congress -- Republican and Democrat -- who were all over the airwaves this morning attacking the president. But in 2008, responding to a soldier's question at West Point, Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made clear that "Congress, and not the military, is responsible for (DADT)."

This isn't about the military. The Pentagon has made clear that they are willing to work with the president to repeal the policy. It is about politics.

Every argument being made today to exclude gays from the military was made in the past to exclude blacks. And yet, once the military was integrated, it became a model of real integration for our nation -- one of the few places where minorities are indeed fully integrated, equal if not more successful in attaining leadership roles. Freed from the requirement of discrimination, the military has shown that it can judge merit without regard to race or gender. Freed from the requirement of discrimination, the military could lead the way to an equal society.

When President Clinton first proposed eliminating the ban on gays in the military, he pointed to the extensive evidence of harassment suffered by soldiers who were thought to be gay. By all reports, that harassment has not ended. Why would it? The policy embraces the unacceptable and unfair premise that being openly gay is inconsistent with being qualified to serve your country. That premise is a cancer that is not limited to the military. It needs to be fought, not appeased.

Some 20,000 active and former service members belong to an organization of gay soldiers. The issue is not whether gays serve in the military; they do. The issue is whether they get the respect and protection they deserve when they put their lives on the line to serve this country. Shame on us.

Someday, gays will be equal citizens in this country. The trend of history is clear. There will be a day when every American will be equal. Why not now?

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