Wednesday, September 28, 2011
This month, we finally put an end to a discriminatory military policy that was crafted almost two decades ago during a time when we weren’t at war with another country, but rather we were bitterly divided — politically and socially — against ourselves.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” began as an inadequate and deeply flawed compromise that attempted to resolve a debate that raged at all levels of our society — in families, communities and among military and political leaders. It was a Catch-22. It allowed gay troops to serve but only by forcing them to compromise one of the core values they’re trained to uphold as members of the military: integrity.
By requiring service members to lie about who they are, “don’t ask, don’t tell” became a tool for bigots rather than making it possible for gay troops to serve quietly as intended. And during the past decade of conflict, it has forced 14,000 service members to leave the military just when we needed them most.
I opposed “don’t ask, don’t tell” from the beginning, and I’ve been proud to fight for its repeal. But what really brought the policy to an end is the fact America itself has changed.
The late Sen. Barry Goldwater, a World War II veteran and staunch conservative, famously said, “You don’t have to be straight to shoot straight.” I think Goldwater was ahead of his time because, even as recently as two decades ago, it seems many of our troops didn’t see it that way.
But as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I’ve heard in recent years from countless young men and women in uniform — gay and straight — who have told me that the concerns about the impact of open service no longer seem important. In combat, sexual orientation, race, religion and gender simply don’t matter. What counts is a fellow service member’s courage, loyalty, integrity and commitment to the mission.
They’ve also told me about the toll “don’t ask, don’t tell” has taken on our military.
After a decade of fighting simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the strain of repeated tours of duty has been devastating to thousands of troops and military families. The fact that we need every able man or woman who wants to serve has made the cost of kicking out otherwise qualified troops simply because of their sexual orientation seem that much more absurd and reckless. Arabic linguists, fighter pilots and infantrymen with critical skills and combat experience have been discharged only because their sexual orientation was discovered.
Earlier this month, we reflected on who we are as a nation and what it means to be an American 10 years after 9/11. In the days and weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, families and entire communities — even politicians — forgot past divisions and came together. And amid the decade of strain and grieving that has followed the attack on U.S. soil, we’ve sharpened our sense of what’s important, put aside some intolerant views and refocused. What no longer made sense to a majority of Americans — and what never made sense to my children’s generation — was to force brave and loyal service members out of the military for being gay.
So now, 18 years after “don’t ask, don’t tell” went into effect, we were ready to end it. The Pentagon said it was ready. Our troops said they were ready. And most importantly, the American people were ready.
I hope we’ll remind our grandchildren that Sept. 20 was the day we gave up discrimination in favor of unity. It’s the day we strengthened our military by allowing it to attract our nation’s best talent to defend its borders, regardless of whom they love.
It was — and will continue to be — a day to celebrate.