03/30/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

After State of the Union, Gates and Mullen Charge the Hill

"This year," the President said in his State of the Union speech last night, "I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are."

It was only one sentence, but it was unequivocal. While we would have liked more specifics--and more specifics will indeed be needed--he did say "this year," and that is important. It is something we can build on.

Of course, some weighed in immediately. Senator McCain issued a statement immediately after the speech: "It would be a mistake to repeal [DADT] now." Even before the speech, House Minority Leader John Boehner said, "I think [DADT] has worked very well and we just ought to leave it alone." (Tell that one to the Marines, as they say.) And we can always rely on Pat Buchanan for a pithy quote: "I don't think saying gays can come out of the closet in the barracks is going to be a big seller at the gas station." To which we reply, "It's not about the guy at the gas pump, Pat. It about a qualified young man or woman who wants to serve his country as he or she is, gay or straight, and not forced to be someone he or she is not."

It's very simple, really. It's about justice and fairness and righting our core military values.

And we have our staunch supporters, many of them retired enlisted personnel and retired military officers. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) is a retired rear admiral and fierce champion of repeal in the House. As the senior ranking military veteran in Congress, he felt "compelled to respond to Sen. McCain's opposition to President Obama's commitment to allowing all American troops to serve their country openly and honestly. How can a policy that has dismissed more than 13,000 trained, able, and honorable American service members-- including upwards of 800 troops with 'mission critical' skills, like Arab linguists--be viewed as successful?

"Especially in a time of war, when our military is overstretched and our troops and their families are under unprecedented strain, we cannot afford to lose any more troops that the American people depend on for our national security. I agree with Sen. McCain that our military is the best in the world and the best in our nation's history. That's precisely why I have faith in the leadership capabilities of our officer corps and non-commissioned officers, as well as the dedication, professionalism, and integrity of our troops, to handle this transition without detriment to readiness or capability.

"The men and women who wear the cloth of this nation should be entitled to the rights they so heroically defend."

The battle is clearly progressing but the war is not over. On Feb. 2 and 11, after starts and stops and hiccups, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hear what Defense Secretary Robert Gates and JCS Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen think about repeal. We will work closely with the White House and Congress and our allies to make the President's promise a reality. To do that we've got to muster all the elements of a smart campaign--follow-up and hard work. There's a lot of slow slogging drudgery involved. We still have much more work to do at the Pentagon, but at the end of the day no one at the Pentagon should have a de facto veto over getting rid of DADT or slowing repeal down.

And there should be no skirting around the fact that there is only one bill moving now on Capitol Hill where DADT could be repealed in this Congress, and that is the defense budget now being drafted. That process will probably continue until late April or early May. The defense bill is one of the few must-pass bills this year. This is no secret. Our opponents know it. The White House knows it. We could say there are other options available, that we will pick and chose the right time and place to make our move. But that would take us off the laser focus we need starting now. Let me say it again: the best and perhaps the only way to repeal DADT this year will be in the defense authorization bill.

We'll have more to say about all this when the Senate Armed Services Committee meets on February 2 at 12 noon to hear what Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen have to say about repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."