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How To Repeal Don't Ask, Don't Tell

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by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Ian Millhiser

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While campaigning for the White House, President Obama pledged to repeal the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (DADT) policy, which bars openly gay men and women from serving in the military. The administration is seeking "Congressional action" to resolve the issue. As a consequence, the military has discharged more than 265 service members on the basis of the discriminatory and counterproductive policy since Obama took office. Despite the losses, when asked about DADT in March, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that repealing DADT would have to be pushed "down the road a little bit." Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said that the Senate was waiting for "a legislative proposal from the White House on repeal so as to provide clear guidance on what the President would like to see and when." Seventy-seven members of the House recently sent Obama a letter urging him to "suspend" DADT. As part of an effort to build momentum from this call for action, the Center for American Progress published a report yesterday by Lawrence J. Korb, Sean Duggan, and Laura Conley that provides a practical outline for repealing DADT and opening the armed forces to men and women who are currently excluded.

HOW TO MOVE FORWARD: Korb, Duggan, and Conley have laid out a five-step solution to repealing DADT that starts with the Obama administration setting the agenda: 1) Sign an Executive Order banning further military separations based on DADT and send a legislative proposal on DADT repeal to Congress; 2) Form a presidential panel on how to implement the repeal; 3) Repeal DADT in Congress and change the Uniformed Code of Military Justice; 4) Change other necessary military guidelines to conform to the new policy; and 5) Follow-up to ensure that the armed forces implement the policy changes. The CAP report says that "careful examination of the laws outlining the president's powers as commander in chief show that the executive branch has the authority to suspend homosexual conduct discharges without legislative action." This provision, commonly known as a "stop loss" order, grants the president authority to suspend the release of military members during any period of national emergency in which members of a reserve unit are serving on active duty. But because Congress originally passed the ban, an executive suspension will have to be followed up with legislative action that reverses DADT. CAP also recommends forming a DADT advisory panel modeled after the Gates Commission, which was established by President Nixon in 1969 and outlined a plan for transitioning the military to an all-volunteer structure. The commission's charge should be to consider "how" to end DADT, not "whether" to make the change.

LESSONS LEARNED: A crucial hurdle, the CAP report says, is the military's "strong aversion to change." President Truman's effort to integrate the Army bares this out. In 1948, after Truman issued an executive order ending racial segregation in the armed services, Gen. Omar Bradley, then the Army chief of staff, flatly refused, saying desegregation would ruin the Army. Because of the military's reluctance and bureaucratic hedging, Truman's 1948 order wasn't implemented until 1954. The CAP report notes that it's common for members of Congress, especially those on the Armed Services Committee, to aid the military's aversion to change. Robert Taft, the Senate Majority Leader at the time, called Truman's executive order a "cheap political ploy." On the question of gays serving openly in the military, perhaps the biggest obstacle has been public opinion -- until recently. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, nearly two-thirds disagreed with the argument that "allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the military would be divisive for the troops and hurt their ability to fight effectively." And a 2006 Zogby International poll of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans found that 73 percent were personally "comfortable with gays and lesbians." The most recent example of a military seamlessly integrating its Army can be found in Britain. The British, who have a military structure and deployment patterns most similar to ours, were forced to allow gays into the military by the European Court of Human Rights in 2000. Before integrating, surveys in Britain indicated that there would be a backlash from current service members, with "two-thirds of male troops" saying that they would not work with gay men if gay bans were lifted. Once the ban was lifted, however, only a handful of troops resigned.

DADT STILL CLAIMING CASUALTIES: During a conference call with reporters yesterday, Korb underscored that repealing DADT was "not a gay rights issue" but an "issue of military readiness" at a time when the U.S. is engaged in two wars. Since its enactment more than 16 years ago, DADT has resulted in the discharge of more than 13,000 highly qualified men and women. At least 1,000 of these service members have held "critical occupations," such as interpreters and engineers. In addition, roughly 4,000 service members have left the military voluntarily every year because of DADT. The recent cases of Air Force Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach and Army Lt. Daniel Choi are illuminating. Fehrenbach, a highly decorated F-15 fighter pilot and an 18-year veteran of the Air Force with 88 combat missions, was informed last September that he would be discharged because someone notified his commanding officer that Fehrenbach had a male partner. It's estimated the military spent roughly $25 million training Fehrenbach. Choi was a National Guard infantry officer, whose expertise as an Arab linguist was vital to the war in Iraq. But he was also discharged because of the bigoted policy. The result of losing talented and crucial service members, said Korb, is that "lives could be lost."