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Aubrey Sarvis Headshot

The Testimony of Three Witnesses

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A person would have to have a heart of stone to read the opening statements of the three former service members who will testify Wednesday afternoon before a House Armed Services subcommittee on Military Personnel, and not be moved. The three have almost 75 years of military service among them. One is a gay Marine, one is a lesbian Naval officer, and the third, Major General Vance Coleman, U.S. Army (Ret.), is an African-American who is straight. In a sense, it would be hard to find three more different people. In another sense, they are very much alike: they stand up for what they believe, and they believe that the outmoded law known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is wrong and wasteful. They are not afraid to say so.

General Coleman enlisted when he was 17, "in the days before we desegregated our fighting units or our park fountains," as he writes in his prepared statement. How many people today, I wonder, realize that once upon a time in the South, but within the living memory of some of us, a black man could not drink at the same fountain as a white man? How many are able to feel the degrading humiliation that this inflicted every single time an African-American passed a fountain and thought, "No, can't drink here. This one is for the white folks."

But I digress. General Coleman served in segregated units in the United States and in Europe before he was selected for Officers Candidate School, after which he was assigned to a combat arms unit. "When I got there, however, I was promptly reassigned to a service unit that was all black. The message was clear: it did not matter that I was a qualified field artillery officer . . . it only mattered that I was black."

Reading General Coleman's prepared statement today is like reading some historical document in the Slave Narrative Collection compiled in the 1930s by the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), or looking at one of the actual bills of sale from a slave auction in my friend Riley Temple's collection, or watching the interrogation videos released last week of a weeping 16-year-old citizen of Canada being questioned at Guantanamo in 2003, a year after he was captured in Afghanistan: you know that these things happened; you have seen the evidence. You know these narratives are true, you know that a human being - thousands of human beings - were sold at auction as if they were a commodity like corn, or an animal like a horse. You might even know that in Nazi Germany gay men were thrown into concentration camps because they were gay, just as Jews were sent to the camps because they were Jews and it took just a little Jewish blood to be a Jew, and gypsies suffered the same fate because they were gypsies.

Yes, we know that these things happened and are still happening but in some other world that seems vaguely unreal, or maybe in a movie. In any case, they don't affect us.

Oh, but they do. The proof is in the testimony of these three witnesses to the effect of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" on the military in general and on themselves as service members in particular. Real people that real things really happened to - and continue to happen to every day.

Some claim "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" shores up military readiness and unit cohesion. In the real world, that would be out there in the field, where these three witnesses served for nearly 75 years it did just the opposite. They know you do not build trust and unit cohesion when you require someone to lie every day about who they are. This debate and hearing is about keeping a federal law that allows one employer, the Department of Defense, to fire someone because of their sexual orientation. The former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman John Shalikashvili said yesterday he thinks the hearing is a great idea and needed. The General has been in the field too.

General Coleman is not gay; he is black. But he knows "what it is like to be thought of as second-class . . . and to have your hard work dismissed because of who you are or what you look like."

"I also know what a difference it made," he says, "when we placed qualification ahead of discrimination and tore down the walls of racial prejudice in our fighting forces." For most young people today those walls are something they know about from their history books, if they know about it at all. President Truman ended racial segregation in the armed forces of the United States sixty years ago this month. Most people alive today were not even born back then. You've got to be fifty-five, probably, to have a memory of the Vietnam War that consists of much more than that beautiful granite memorial on the Mall. That war ended thirty-three years ago.

Unfortunately this DADT war over sexual orientation has gone on for far too long. My hope - and my belief - is that in the not too distant future the era of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" will seem part of a sad and dusty past, vaguely unreal, like a dream, almost quaint. And the period before that, when recruits were in fact asked, and if gays and lesbians answered honestly, they were out before they got in? Well, tell me another one. OK, here's another one. After this "compromise" in 1993 when "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" became the law of the land, they were not going to ask any more. In the real world, in the field, it hasn't turned out that way. Every year commanders are losing thousands of talented gay Marines and sailors like Sergeant Alva and Captain Joan Darrah. Some are fired and some say they have had enough and leave on their own. Can we really talk about military readiness?

Can you who are reading this imagine what that means to some 65,000 gay and lesbian service members now serving in the armed forces? Don't you think they are getting tired of this second class treatment? What if they all decided on the same day they had had enough? Can we really talk about military readiness?

In the case of another witness, Captain Joan E. Darrah, U.S. Navy (Ret.), every single day for almost thirty years she went into work with the question in the back of her mind: is this the day I'm going to be booted?

I am running out of space and I have not even gotten to the statement of Staff Sergeant Eric Alva, who joined the Marines when he was 19, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. "I was patriotic, idealistic; I was also gay." He stayed in the Marines for thirteen years, until he was grievously wounded three hours - hours, not days - into the invasion of Iraq.

Here is what he has to say about the "unit cohesion" that our opponents feel will be destroyed if - God forbid! - a homosexual man or woman should infiltrate the unit. (I hate to tell them, but they're already there.) "As a former Marine," Sergeant Alva says, "I can tell you what it takes to build unit cohesion: trust. It takes trust in your fellow unit members to have your back and do their job. And I can also tell you that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" does nothing but undercut that trust, and with it our nation's security."

You'll hear more from Sergeant Alva, and you haven't heard the last from me on this subject either.

We'll know soon if C-SPAN will cover the hearings. If not, you can see them live at: http://armedservices.house.gov/audiocast.shtml.

Watch it!