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Lawrence Korb Headshot

Now Is the Time for Gates and Mullen to Repeal 'Don't Ask Don't Tell'

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Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen correctly criticized Lt. General Benjamin Mixon, commanding general of the U.S. Army, Pacific, for writing to Stars and Stripes on March 8, 2010 expressing his opposition to repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the law that bans openly gay men and women from serving in the military, and asking other military members to do the same. However, they have only themselves to blame for Mixon's insubordination as well as the recent comments of General James Conway, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, to a group of Marines at a town hall meeting. During that meeting, General Conway stated that if the DADT law were repealed he would not make straight Marines room with openly gay fellow Marines.

Why are Gates and Mullen to blame? The reason is that in the approximately 1,200 days that Gates has been in office, more than 2,000 people have been discharged under the Pentagon's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. Many of these patriotic men and women were thrown out by low ranking officers often acting on hearsay evidence supplied by anonymous third parties. Yet until March 25, 2010 when he issued more lenient guidelines for enforcing DADT, this inhumane treatment of these brave men and women has not bothered the secretary. While Mullen has been in office one year less time than Gates, he served as Chief of Naval Operations and as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for two years before that, and has served with gays for more than 40 years, making him equally guilty.

The new guidelines, which apply only to pending or future cases, mandate that discharges will now have to be approved by general or flag officers, that information provided by third parties will have to be given under oath, and the use of hearsay will be discouraged. While the new guidelines are a welcome step, it still begs the question of why it took the secretary so long to correct these abuses. Moreover, in promulgating these new guidelines, Gates stressed that Congress should not repeal DADT before the Pentagon completes its year-long review of how to implement the repeal. This review will include getting the views of the troops and their families.

To remedy this situation, Gates should first admit that he was wrong to put up with this inhumane policy these last several years and allow those who were discharged on the basis of hearsay and third party claims to reapply to join the service. Only then will they have the moral credibility to discipline officers like Mixon and Conway.

Not only must the secretary allow all those who have been outed anonymously to reapply in order to return to active duty, he must speed up the work of the high-level group that is examining the administrative and legal changes that must be made when DADT is repealed and drop his opposition to Congress replacing DADT until the Pentagon completes its year-long review. There is no plausible reason that it needs to take a year to make the changes necessary to implement DADT or why it is necessary to complete the review before repealing the law.

In fact, the British military (which is structured like ours and has fought along side us in Iraq and continues to fight with us in Afghanistan) was able to effectively implement a policy of allowing openly gay people to serve within two months after the European Court of Human Rights told them to drop the ban. As the Clinton administration learned after it attempted to allow open service in 1993, slow walking the process will only allow the opponents of repealing DADT more opportunities to prevent it from happening.

Nor should the secretary or the chairman allow any officers to question whether changing the policy will adversely impact readiness. Studies done by and for the Pentagon for the past 50 years and the experiences of our closest allies, like the British, Canadians, and the Israelis, demonstrate that allowing openly gay people to serve will not undermine unit cohesion or military readiness. Therefore, Gates and Mullen must push back not only on statements like those made by Mixon and Conway, but those of commanders like General David Petraeus, who said he was withholding judgment on whether to drop the ban until he sees the impact on recruitment and retention. That day is past.

Finally, while the issue should be discussed with the troops, it is not appropriate to allow them to get the impression that the decision on whether or not the ban will be dropped will depend upon their vote. While more and more troops are supporting dropping the ban, it is not their place to weigh in on the wisdom of repeal. For example, when President Harry Truman ordered the military to integrate, only 13 percent of the troops supported his decision and General Omar Bradley told him it would ruin the Army.

That apocalyptic outcome never happened, nor will the doomsday scenarios of those current opponents to dropping "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Now is the time for the secretary and the chairman to work with Congress to repeal the ban quickly and demonstrate that proponents of DADT are on the wrong side of history as were those who opposed the integration of African Americans and opening up combat positions to women.