Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Was Only the First Step Toward Open Service
Conventional wisdom said that efforts to legislatively repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” or DADT, would fail this year after a losing vote in the Senate on December 9. But Congress defied conventional wisdom last week by voting to repeal DADT, the Clinton-era law that bans gay men and women from serving openly in our armed forces. It did so with overwhelming and bipartisan support. Congress, the president, and the Pentagon deserve the nation’s commendation for finally overturning this outdated and ineffective policy.
Legislative repeal, however, is only the first step toward allowing gay men and women to serve openly. Over the next few months, the Pentagon must develop a plan for implementing repeal, our military leaders must certify that plan, and only then can the Pentagon implement repeal. All indications point to a smooth and swift implementation, but opponents continue to protest that this will not be the case. Let’s first review what the implementation process will look like before addressing opponents’ concerns.
The Pentagon is currently developing a roadmap for executing repeal based in large part on its Comprehensive Working Group Report released earlier this month. It will develop education and outreach training for troops and military professionals, with a strong emphasis on the leadership of commanding officers. These efforts will be led by Dr. Clifford Stanley, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. The Pentagon will also update policy manuals, directives, and training materials so that a single standard of conduct will apply to all military personnel whether they are straight or gay. It will further update regulations dealing with benefits, housing, and conduct.
The president, secretary of defense, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff must then certify that these new policies and regulations are consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention of the Armed Forces. They will carefully consult with the military service chiefs and combatant commanders in making these certifications. Congress then has 60 days to review the certification and the Pentagon’s recommendations for repeal. The Pentagon will then begin implementing repeal throughout the military.
Policy changes relating to repealing DADT may require thorough review, but most existing directives and regulations are neutral with respect to sexual orientation. Others only require minor changes. As a result, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and President Barack Obama have indicated that they plan to expeditiously certify and execute the Pentagon’s recommendations.
Much of the speculation about repeal concerns when gay men and women can begin to serve openly as well as what will happen with the more than 14,000 troops discharged under DADT. The Department of Defense has stated it will continue to operate under the DADT policy in the interim period prior to implementation. That is, DOD will not ask service members about their sexual orientation, and service members should not volunteer information about their orientation.
Further, DOD will continue to follow revised regulations Secretary Gates issued earlier this year that have essentially halted discharges of gay troops under DADT. Even so, gay men and women currently serving in the military will need to remain cautiously closeted.
It is also likely that the military will permit service members discharged under DADT to reenlist if they qualify in all other respects. The Pentagon report recommends that each service branch permit service members previously separated under DADT to be considered for re-entry. Each branch maintains respective procedures for reenlistment or reappointment. The report further states that an applicant’s sexual orientation should not be considered a detriment to their reappointment. At the same time, the services will not establish any special procedures or preferential treatment for those service members who were discharged under DADT.
In sum, the legislation passed by Congress last week places implementation of DADT repeal squarely in the hands of the Pentagon, which will undoubtedly adopt many if not all of the steps for implementation outlined in its comprehensive report.
Still, opponents of gays serving openly in the military contend that implementation will prove difficult, disruptive, and dangerous despite these practical and sensible steps to implementing repeal. These claims are divorced from both fact and reality.
First, even before Congress voted to repeal DADT, the Pentagon report revealed that most troops support overturning the ban and that doing so would pose minimal risk to military readiness and effectiveness. Sixty-nine percent of troops surveyed, for example, said they have worked in a unit with a co-worker who they believed to be gay or lesbian. And an overwhelming 92 percent of those people believe their unit’s “ability to work together” was either “very good,” “good,” or “neither good nor poor.” This includes 89 percent of those in Army combat arms units and 84 percent of those in Marine combat arms units.
Second, the experience of our foreign allies indicates that the Pentagon can implement repeal smoothly and swiftly. With the repeal of DADT, the United States now joins the ranks of 35 countries that permit gay men and women to serve openly in uniform, including vital allies such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany, Italy, and Israel. Surveys of militaries in many of these countries indicated higher levels of resistance to repeal than the survey results found in the Pentagon report.
But even where resistance was high—such as in the United Kingdom—implementation of repeal in those countries went much more smoothly than expected, with little or no disruption to battle effectiveness.
Moreover, repealing DADT legislatively has preempted a potentially disruptive judicial repeal. Challenges to DADT were winding their way through the federal courts prior to last week’s repeal. And rulings earlier this fall showed that a court-imposed repeal can inject confusion and uncertainty into our armed forces at a time when our country is actively engaged in two active military campaigns.
Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen echoed this sentiment in their statements before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month, when they once again testified that they believed that Congress should repeal DADT. Congressional inaction on this issue posed a far greater risk to battle effectiveness than legislative repeal.
Perhaps most illustrative, the service chiefs of each military branch maintained that repeal can and will occur without disruption. Each military commander affirmed that their respective branch will implement repeal professionally and efficiently during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearings earlier this month. Even chiefs who have expressed skepticism about repeal, such as Gen. James Amos, a Marine Corps commandant, say their troops are equipped to handle repeal.
Those who continue to bemoan repeal as dangerous and disruptive have clearly not done their homework. Our own troops, allies, and military leaders have all indicated the Pentagon can and will implement repeal of DADT with little or no disruption to our armed forces.
Legislative repeal of DADT poses minimal risk to military readiness and effectiveness. In fact, repealing DADT strengthens our national security by allowing all men and women to serve in the military, regardless of sexual orientation. And it restores honor to our military by no longer forcing thousands of troops to live a lie. America is a stronger country for it.
Jeff Krehely is Director of the LGBT Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress. Crosby Burns is a special assistant on that project.
For more on this topic please see:
- Implementing the Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the U.S. Armed Forces by Lawrence J. Korb, Sean Duggan, and Laura Conley
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