Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t wait

Dan Choi was a career army officer, a combat veteran, a fluent Arabic speaker. In March, he announced he was gay, and in May, he was discharged.

“When I got the letter, I was extremely angry,” he told Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. “The letter is basically saying bottom line, Lt. Dan Choi, you’re fired. You’re a West Point graduate; you’re fired. You’re an Arabic linguist; you’re fired. You deployed to Iraq, you’re willing to deploy again, doesn’t matter. Because you’re gay, that’s enough grounds to kick you out.”

Under current law, sexual preference IS enough to kick him out. That’s why the law should be changed.

In 1993, President Clinton signed legislation establishing the current “don’t ask, don’t tell” standard. Gays can only serve if they don’t have sex or talk about their orientation. Since then, about 13,000 homosexuals have been expelled from the military, more than 250 since President Obama took office.

The rationale for the policy was that national security demanded it. As the legislation put it, allowing gays to serve openly “would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.”



Today, that rationale has been turned on its head. The national interest requires that gays be included, not excluded, from the armed forces.

Start with obvious cases like Dan Choi. Arabic speakers – particularly those with on-the-ground experience in Muslim countries – are invaluable and irreplaceable. America cannot afford to lose any of them, especially when forces are stretched so thin that troops are compelled to serve repeated combat tours.

The country also cannot afford to lose dedicated soldiers like Lt. Sandy Tsao, who decided last January to tell her superiors she was gay. In a letter to the newly elected president, she urged him to repeal the current policy: “We have the best military in the world, and I would like to continue to be part of it. My mother can tell you it is my dream to serve our country. I have fought and overcome many battles to arrive at the point I am today. This is the only battle I fear I may lose.”

But is there a price to pay if gay soldiers like Choi and Tsao are retained? Do they pose an “unacceptable risk” to morale and discipline? The answer is clearly no.

For one thing, public opinion is shifting rapidly. In a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, 75 percent favored allowing gays to serve openly, up from 62 percent in 2001 and 44 percent in 1993. The link is direct. If the public – including active-duty military personnel – accepts gays, their negative impact on morale and cohesion (if it ever existed) is severely reduced.

These numbers are reinforced by soldiers like Army Staff Sgt. Genevieve Chase, a straight Afghanistan vet who recently told a Washington press conference: “I’m here to tell you that gays have been and are already serving openly. Unit cohesion across the spectrum of the military is better than it has ever been, because our generation embraces diversity.”

The push in Congress to change the law is led by several retired military officers, who know from experience the contributions gays make to national defense. Former Vice Adm. Joe Sestak, now a Democratic representative from Pennsylvania, told MSNBC that when he was “out there in command,” he had to discourage gay sailors from admitting their sexuality: “You just want to say, ‘No, I don’t want to lose you; you’re too good.’” Added Sestak: “We have to correct this. It’s just not right.”

While Obama says he supports repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he has moved cautiously. Gay activists insist he can reverse the policy through executive order. The president maintains that only Congress can revise the statute, and since he has more pressing business on Capitol Hill, gay rights will have to wait.

Fair enough, we’re not suggesting that Obama repeat Clinton’s mistake and let gays in the military cloud his first year. But the president should not wait too long to take up the issue. Public opinion and political sentiment are moving steadily in favor of change, and Obama can help accelerate that momentum. In announcing that the Senate Armed Services Committee would hold a hearing on the issue this fall, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand got it right when she said: “By repealing this policy, we will increase America’s strength – both militarily and morally.” Dan Choi proves her point.

Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2009, Steven and Cokie Roberts.

Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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