03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Don't Ask Don't Tell: Congress Must Repeal the Discriminatory Policy

In his first address to a joint session of Congress, President Obama said, "This country values the talents of every American." But does it?

Sixteen years after President Clinton signed into law 10 U.S.C § 654, commonly known as Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT), qualified Americans wanting to serve their country continue to be excluded from military service solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. Excluding these patriotic Americans contravenes the inclusive principles of our society which embraces diversity. It also has a detrimental impact on the military's readiness and ability to meet manpower needs.

While much of the discussion surrounding DADT's detrimental impact on manpower focuses on those service members discharged from reserve and active duty, DADT's reach is much broader. The dismissal of cadets and midshipmen from ROTC programs serves as another example of how DADT prevents our nation's military from being all that it can be.

Patriotic Americans participating in ROTC programs have fallen victim to DADT at some of our nation's best universities like Cornell, Colorado, and George Washington, to name but a few. Several institutions of higher learning steadfastly maintain a ban on on-campus ROTC programs because of the discriminatory law. Among them, Harvard and Columbia Universities cite the conflict between DADT and university nondiscrimination policies as a reason for refusing to host ROTC programs.

While most colleges and universities don't take the same stance as Harvard and Columbia, the overwhelming majority that do host ROTC programs maintain nondiscrimination policies, that embrace the diversity found on campuses and forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The value of diversity isn't lost on the military either. Major General Arthur M. Bartell, the commander of the U.S. Army Cadet Command, who is in charge of recruiting officers to the Army said, "In a word, what makes the ROTC experience special is diversity - that's geographic, educational, gender, and ethnic diversity." He added, "Diversity exposes young Americans to a community of ideas that we find in our traditional college campus environment." Approximately 36 percent of all new military officers receive their commission through ROTC programs.

Supporters of DADT argue that if openly homosexual individuals are permitted to serve, then the military will encounter difficulties in recruiting and retention, and unit cohesion will be undermined.

However, the findings of several major studies indicate just the opposite. Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles - who estimate there are 65,000 gays and lesbians currently serving in the armed forces - suggest that repealing DADT will actually attract thousands of new recruits who have not pursued service because of the discriminatory law. Undoubtedly, some of these new recruits would seek service opportunities through commissioning programs like ROTC.

Additionally, a recent essay by Col. Om Prakash published in Joint Forces Quarterly highlights that "there is no empirical evidence" to substantiate claims that homosexuals serving openly will have a detrimental impact on unit cohesion. Col. Prakash also cites the positive experiences of several of our European allies after having lifted similar bans on homosexuals serving in the military.

Many gay rights activists would like President Obama to act unilaterally and issue an executive order instructing the military not to enforce DADT. This seems unlikely given the President's desire to build consensus before repealing the law. Not to mention, an executive order easily could be reversed by a later administration, and worse, would leave a discriminatory law on the books.

The best option is for Congress to act immediately and repeal DADT by passing the Military Readiness Enhancement Act (MREA). The MREA which currently has 183 co-sponsors, would replace DADT with a policy of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. President Obama has repeatedly stated that he will sign into law a bill to repeal DADT if Congress sends one to his desk. Unfortunately the MREA is currently stuck in the House Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Armed Services Committee, which recently announced that hearings on DADT that were tentatively scheduled for this past November, have now been postponed indefinitely.

With the military already stretched thin - many of the 140,000 troops in Iraq and close to 70,000 in Afghanistan have already served multiple combat tours - President Obama's decision to commit an additional 30,000 troops to the war in Afghanistan places further demands on a military struggling to balance manpower needs.

During a recent appearance on Meet the Press, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell asked, "Where are the troops going to come from?" By needlessly excluding a swath of available manpower, the current policy of DADT has only shackled a military that needs all available hands.

President Obama and many members Congress have vowed to create a "military for the 21st century." This promise must not only include providing state of the art training and equipment to our men and women in uniform. It must also guarantee that all Americans willing and qualified to serve their country have the opportunity to do so, regardless of sexual orientation. Otherwise, our nation will fail to live up to its ideals and the military will continue to squander badly needed talent.

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