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Opinion

How to end 'Don't ask, don't tell'

The policy that keeps gays from serving openly undermines military readiness and does not make sense practically, financially, or morally. So what is holding the administration back?

By Lawrence J. Korb, Sean E. Duggan, Laura Conley / July 7, 2009



Washington

Last year, as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledged he would work with military leaders and Congress to repeal the law that bans openly gay men and women from serving in the military. Last week, as the nation's commander in chief, he renewed his stance, declaring that "preventing patriotic Americans from serving our country weakens our national security." Yet the law commonly known as "Don't ask, don't tell," or DADT, still remains in effect.

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As a consequence, more than 275 service members have been discharged on the basis of this discriminatory, outmoded, and counterproductive policy since President Obama took office and an estimated 2,000 have left the service voluntarily this year because of the policy. In addition, DADT has deterred untold others who want to defend their country from serving.

Since its enactment more than 16 years ago, DADT has resulted in the discharge of more than 13,000 patriotic and highly qualified men and women. This not only undermines military readiness, but costs the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars spent on training and replacing these people.

At least 1,000 of these 13,000 have held "critical occupations," such as interpreters and engineers. For example, by the end of fiscal year 2003, a few months after the fall of Baghdad, the military had forced out more than 320 service members with vital language skills such as Arabic and Farsi. Meanwhile, the Army and Marine Corps have been forced to significantly lower their moral and aptitude standards to fill their ranks, including taking in people with felony convictions.

Nevertheless, there is no sense of urgency within the Obama administration to repeal DADT. The president himself said on June 29 that he believes the best approach is to work with Congress and the Defense Department to change the law. But the Pentagon's leader, Secretary Robert Gates said, "The president and I feel like we've got a lot on our plates right now and let's push that one down the road a little bit."

Yet as President Clinton's experience in 1993 demonstrates, any delay can allow those who oppose repealing DADT to seize the momentum. As President Truman found out when he tried to integrate the armed forces, or President Nixon when he tried to end the draft, the Pentagon and their supporters on the Hill will resist these changes.

Unlike 16 years ago, the US is waging two wars and "Don't ask, don't tell" is no longer supported by the majority of the American people. The percentage of Americans that support allowing gay people to serve openly has risen from 44 percent in 1993 to 75 percent last year, according to Washington Post-ABC News polls.. While a 2006 Zogby International poll of returning Iraq and Afghanistan service members found that only 26 percent agreed that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve in the military, 73 percent were personally comfortable around gays and lesbians.

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