05/11/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Gays Must Be Allowed to Serve Openly in the Military

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told Congress it was time to end the "don't ask, don't tell" policy about the sexual orientation of American service members. It's about time. As a retired Navy Captain who has long believed that DADT is harmful to national security and unworthy of our nation, I wholeheartedly support allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces. Congress should heed Admiral Mullen's words and repeal this deeply flawed policy and allow the military to maintain good order and discipline the old fashioned way: focusing on the conduct of service members, not their sexual orientation. Having commanded two Navy reserve units, including a P-3C patrol squadron with over 300 men and women, I can say with considerable authority that sexual misconduct, not sexual status, is the real challenge in a military unit.

Critics of Admiral Mullen's view contend that ending DADT would be disruptive because we are engaged in major combat operations. In fact, it is because we are engaged in major combat operations that DADT must immediately be repealed. America's all volunteer force struggles to recruit and retain quality personnel; DADT has resulted in the discharge of thousands of well-qualified service members, including hundreds of mission-critical translators, voice interceptors, and other specialists crucial to the war against Al Qaeda. The deleterious impact on military readiness from those figures alone is basis enough to repeal DADT. The professed concerns about the impact of gay soldiers on unit cohesion are especially ironic, given that the military was simultaneously filling out the ranks through thousands of "moral" waivers to recruits with criminal records for offenses such as burglary, aggravated assault, and robbery. A felon in the ranks could be tolerated, apparently, but not an openly gay man or woman.

Another compelling reason to end DADT is the corrosive effect of a policy that has encouraged deception in a military that prizes honesty and integrity. Critics of DADT rightly focus on the thousands of gay service members who must lie about who they are in order to serve our country in uniform. But the ethical dilemma and culture of deception engendered by DADT does not end with the gay soldier or sailor. There are thousands of straight service members (including some unit commanders) who know or strongly suspect that a shipmate or platoon mate is gay, yet they choose to remain silent and ignore the policy in order to protect their brother- or sister-in-arms. Any policy that sets up such tension between loyalty to comrades and obedience to orders is an unhealthy policy. And a policy that was founded on willful deceit - don't ask (because we don't want to know) and don't tell (because we prefer you to lie) - is especially pernicious.

As a squadron skipper I dealt with a number of sexual misconduct and fraternization cases, all of which involved inappropriate relationships between heterosexual members under my command. Some were minor, others more serious, but I dealt with them as skippers have long dealt with disciplinary matters. Good commanders get the facts, hear from all concerned, and mete out the discipline they believe is appropriate and in the best interests of the unit. There is no reason military commanders cannot proceed in the same manner if the inappropriate relationship involves gay or lesbian behavior.

DADT must also be repealed simply because it is wrong. No American should be denied the right to wear the uniform of this country simply because he or she is gay. The test ought to be a simple one that can apply to every sailor, soldier, airman or marine regardless of sexual orientation: It's about what you do, not who you are.

Sean Coffey, an Annapolis graduate and 30 year Navy veteran, is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for New York Attorney General.