Now that President Obama has issued orders on a new Afghanistan strategy, there is an opportunity to move forward with a pledge made during the campaign - repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT)."
Progress is being made, but more can be done now. In fact, the President has the authority to order that an implementation plan be drafted by the Pentagon. If the President is serious about the repeal, then he will issue this order immediately. The military could then implement elements of the plan that do not require signed legislation.
My unit was one of the first to cross the Kuwait border into Iraq in March of 2003 and I experienced enough combat to know what's important. One, I cared that the person to the left and right of me in formation could carry their own weight. Two, I wanted to know that they could shoot straight and wouldn't accidentally shoot me or other soldiers in battle. Three, I cared about their values and integrity. None of these qualities are linked to a soldier's sexual preference.
The status quo policy is comfortable for those who believe change will somehow diminish the strength of our military force. It is an argument that carries false assumptions and targets our biggest fear - the strength of our national security.
The most egregious assumption is that repealing DADT would negatively affect unit cohesion. I believe this assumption is absolute nonsense. History has shown that inclusiveness, such as bringing African Americans and women into military service, has successively made our military stronger.
The reality is that maintaining cohesion is incumbent upon unit leaders. Changing the policy, in itself, will have limited affect on cohesion. The real challenge is in implementation.
Cohesion is a function of leadership and combined experiences of a team. Leadership can guide troops within a unit to respect one another and appreciate strengths in differences. Skeptics who suggest that changing the policy would affect cohesion imply that our military leadership lacks the capacity to drive cultural change.
I don't believe this to be true - far from it, actually. Our military leadership is the finest in the world and I'm proud of the inclusive culture I came to know in the Army. The people who serve are committed, determined and patriotic citizens. The pride I carry with having served in the military relates to this culture - one of strong camaraderie bound together with the value of selfless service.
Admittedly, I probably wouldn't have suggested that we should repeal the DADT policy while I was in the Army. DADT was never an issue that I thought about much. I never took the other view - that repealing DADT could actually strengthen Army culture, not just validate equal rights.
I've been a civilian for a few years now and have a broader perspective. I believe a repeal of DADT will strengthen our military force. Furthermore, I believe that it is potentially dangerous for the military's policies on equality to differ from our societal values. Our troops are ambassadors whereever they serve around the world. The American flag is carried on a shoulder of every uniform. The values our troops display largely impact perception of America.
There are other reasons beyond active duty service why we should repeal DADT.
I'd argue that the current policy does our troops a disservice over the long-run. When our troops eventually leave military service the current policy leaves them less equipped to integrate into more inclusive work cultures in civilian life.
The DADT policy diminishes the military's moral authority as it relates to equality. Most private sector corporate policies state something to the effect that the company "will not discriminate based on age, race, gender, veteran status or sexual preference." In my view, it looks bad that the military lacks a reciprocal policy of inclusiveness.
Most importantly, I believe that repealing DADT will strengthen the force with the right implementation plan.
Young men and women with potential to fill our ranks have more accepting views of gays and lesbians than they did just ten years ago. It is possible that the DADT policy is not only turning away potentially strong gay and lesbian troops, but also straight men and women who view DADT as an unfair policy.
The Pentagon leadership should be prepared for push back within the ranks, but that is no reason not to change.
In 2001, most of the Army switched from wearing patrol caps to black berets in normal work environments. The beret had long been associated with elite units such as the 82nd Airborne. The elite Ranger units had previously been the only ones to wear the black berets. When the change was announced, the Rangers switched to wearing a tan beret. Still, many soldiers in these units resisted the change. At that time, General Shinseki addressed cultural change in the military.
"Change, as all of us know, is difficult, especially in the proud and respected institutions," Shinseki said. "But we are transforming this most powerful Army from its Cold War legacy force into an objective force that will be strategically responsive and dominant for all the broad range of missions we are asked to perform."
This is not to say that the changing of berets was unnecessary, but rather it illustrates the fact that change is difficult no matter if it relates to how our military fights wars or what type of headgear our soldiers wear.
In order to successfully implement a new policy, the first step is for policy makers to address the military leadership's willingness to drive such change. Civilian leaders make policy while military leaders are responsible for informing civilian leaders of potential impacts of such policies and for execution once a decision has been made. We cannot accept military leaders who would obstruct or potentially sabotage a policy change once signed into law.
A plan will involve several phases. Among the first issues is to better understand the troops' perspectives. A command climate survey is the necessary first step. Understanding soldier perceptions will help leaders best address the mechanisms necessary to train soldiers on new policies.
There should be room for open dialog while trained professionals help the military navigate a planned cultural change. There are other issues that the military will need to address in implementation. The obvious one is how do you retrain a constantly deployed force? Will some exclusion be permitted from combat arms branches of the military? These are legitimate questions that need to be addressed and answered through an ongoing dialog between our civilian and military leaders.
There are substantive measures that can be taken to ensure our military is prepared for such a shift without signed legislation. We should expect that our military has a culture of tolerance regardless of the current policy.
Ordering the drafting of an implementation plan would be a tangible step forward in the right direction -- the President could make such an order today.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ryan McDermott.
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