09/20/2011 11:56 am ET | Updated Nov 20, 2011

A Day to Celebrate

Today we will finally put an end to a discriminatory military policy that was crafted almost two decades ago during a time when we weren't at war with another country, but rather we were bitterly divided -- politically and socially -- against ourselves.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell began as an inadequate and deeply flawed compromise that attempted to resolve a debate that raged at all levels of our society -- in families, communities, and among military and political leaders. It was a Catch-22. It allowed gay troops to serve, but only by forcing them to compromise one of the core values they're trained to uphold as members of the military: integrity.

By requiring service members to lie about who they are, DADT became a tool for bigots rather than making it possible for gay troops to serve quietly as intended. And over the last decade of conflict, it has forced 14,000 service members to leave the military just when we need them most.

I opposed Don't Ask, Don't Tell from the beginning, and I've been proud to fight for its repeal. But what really brought the policy to an end is the fact that America itself has changed.

The late Senator Barry Goldwater, a WWII veteran and staunch conservative, famously said, "You don't have to be straight to shoot straight." I think Goldwater was ahead of his time because even as recently as two decades ago, it seems many of our troops didn't see it that way.

But as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I've heard in recent years from countless young men and women in uniform -- gay and straight -- who have told me that the concerns about the impact of open service no longer seem important. In combat, sexual orientation, race, religion, and gender simply don't matter. What counts is a fellow service member's courage, loyalty, integrity, and commitment to the mission.

They've also told me about the toll Don't Ask, Don't Tell has taken on our military.

After a decade of fighting simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the strain of repeated tours of duty has been devastating to thousands of troops and military families. The fact that we need every able man or woman who wants to serve has made the cost of kicking out otherwise qualified troops simply because of their sexual orientation seem that much more absurd and reckless. Arabic linguists, fighter pilots, and infantrymen with critical skills and combat experience have been discharged only because their sexual orientation was discovered.

Earlier this month, we reflected on who we are as a nation and what it means to be an American 10 years after 9/11. In the days and weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, families and entire communities -- even politicians -- forgot past divisions and came together. And amid the decade of strain and grieving that has followed the attack on U.S. soil, we've sharpened our sense of what's important, put aside some intolerant views and re-focused. What no longer makes sense to a majority of Americans -- and what never made sense to my children's generation -- is to force brave and loyal service members out of the military for being gay.

So now -- 18 years after don't ask don't tell went into effect -- we're ready to end it. The Pentagon has said it's ready. Our troops say they're ready. And most importantly, the American people say they're ready.

Today is the date circled on calendars as the long-awaited end to this outdated policy. I hope we'll remind our grandchildren that Sept. 20 is the day we gave up discrimination in favor of unity. It's the day we strengthened our military by allowing it to attract our nation's best talent to defend its borders, regardless of whom they love.

Today is a day to celebrate.

Whether you're gay or straight, on active duty or a military veteran, I want to hear about your service. Just tweet your story with the hashtag "#DADTstory" and I will highlight it on my website.

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