The top brass of the United States military came out Tuesday afternoon for repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" because "it's the right thing to do."
In the Senate hearing room there was standing room only for this historic event. For those of us who've been waiting for years to hear these words, it was an amazing moment. No Secretary of Defense, no Chairman of the Joint Chiefs had ever said it so simply and so powerfully before. For that matter, no president had said it until President Obama in his State of the Union address used the same words: "It's the right thing to do."
It would be hard to doubt the sincerity of Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen, or Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) who chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing where all three endorsed repeal, whole-heartedly. No reservations. The hearing was broadcast live on C-SPAN and can be viewed here in its entirety. (DADT begins about 203:5 on the tape.) It is worth watching, not only to see the genuine support we have in Congress but also the tough fight we still face there.
The message Secretary Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen delivered to the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday wasn't complicated: we've been thinking about DADT for some time and we're considering measured and careful steps to make it harder to drum out gay service members until the law is repealed. Positive interim steps, certainly, and a signal that DADT discharges will likely go down even more on their watch.
We found more to praise in that hearing than to censure. Still, we wonder. Is it really necessary to have another year-long study? There have been umpteen studies beginning in the last century until last year, and -- except for a very few that were pre-programmed -- they all came to the same conclusion: there is no problem here. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.) had the right idea when he observed that a year to produce the working group report seemed unnecessary. "I'm not sure I see finality in this study," he said.
But how much time do we really need? The soothing "working group" scenario will tempt more than one senator who'd rather not deal with gays in the military before the elections this fall. It might slow down House members like Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) who, in fact, do want to repeal DADT now -- but I doubt it. It is true that the services will need time to make the transition work. Some regulations will need to be revised, some written, then issued. Training will have to be scheduled over a period of several months to inform and educate troops about the new policy, just as education and training were needed when the military ended segregation in the ranks. Leadership from senior enlisted and the officers corps will be key to a successful transition. But a smooth and responsible change need not take years.
Congressman Murphy's bill, HR 1283, has it right: Repeal the law and replace it with a new policy of nondiscrimination. Even if HR 1283 were passed and signed this November, or if it were incorporated into the Defense Authorization Bill, Congress could still write a provision in the legislation giving the Pentagon another six to nine months for the transition. That should be more than enough time.
Our gay service members need assurances that Congress and the President that they will end the only Federal law that legitimizes discrimination against a particular class of people this year, rather than phasing it out over several years.
"This is about leadership," Admiral Mullen told the Senate committee, "and I take that very seriously." It's also about integrity, he said, and he takes that very seriously, too.