The anxiety leading to today's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the disastrous "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law was palpable. Yes, we knew we had a Commander in Chief committed to rescinding both the policy and the law, but what exactly would the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff say to the committee, and how resolute would they be under senatorial pounding?
The answer came within the first 30 seconds of Secretary Robert Gates' testimony that immediately followed Sen. John McCain's stated opposition to repeal. Two sentences bear repeating: "I fully support the president's decision. The question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it."
Sitting next to Secretary Gates was the highly decorated Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, who then told the Senate panel that he had served with gay servicemen since 1968, adding that "everyone in the military has." The admiral noted that implementing the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" properly across the military was a matter of integrity.
"No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have a policy in place which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens," Admiral Mullen told the packed hearing room, including Senate detractors who sat not just across from him, but above him on the panel.
Today was a seismic shift in our country's sordid history around "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Yes, the discharges have decreased, but thousands of talented and patriotic Americans have been thrown out, and countless more have been forced to forego service to their country.
Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen made clear today that this military review is about how, not if this policy will be repealed. While they announced an effort to mitigate military discharges going forward, Committee Chairman Carl Levin's suggestion is one the president and Congress should heed: that the discharges stop altogether pending the military's review and report to Congress.
There was symbolism today as well that did not go unnoticed. Gates was also President Bush's former Secretary of Defense -- the president who brought us the illogical, unnecessary and hurtful Federal Marriage Amendment fight. That it would be this Secretary of Defense who would deliver this message to Congress was particularly remarkable to those of us who still wear the scars of that pitched battle.
The tide turned today in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. We went from the status of whether or not "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would finally fall, to a world of how this repeal will actually unfold. We finally have the right constellation of leadership in place to end DADT: Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen are the highest ranking military leaders to support repeal while serving. We've come a long way from that day in 1993 when then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Colin Powell, threw his support behind DADT, thereby turning his back on his Commander in Chief.
It's important to note that Secretary Gates made another important statement today. He reminded the panel that it is ultimately up to Congress to rescind this law. And that's exactly what the president and Congress must do forthwith: move forward with legislative repeal to give the Pentagon the full authority to close the books on this stain of discrimination.
In the end, we're confident the military will find what every other study has found over these nearly two decades: that there is growing support for repealing the ban on serving openly both within and outside the military, and that many countries have opened up their service and found no resulting performance issues.
It's always been time to end "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Today was the first day we could see the light at the end of this long, grueling tunnel.