A Discharged Gay Vet: Let Us Back in the Army

Just a handful of loud town hall meetings could send politicians running away from reversing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Anthony Woods on how to implement smart policy.

Just a handful of loud town hall meetings could send politicians running away from reversing Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Anthony Woods, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who was discharged under DADT, on how to implement smart policy.

On Tuesday, Admiral Mike Mullen told Congress, “I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.” Thousands of honorable men and women discharged under this misguided policy have argued this for years. Serving your country and maintaining your integrity should never be in opposition to one another.

Our military is still a huge bureaucracy with countless policies and rules to update, and classes and procedures to develop in order to guarantee a smooth transition.

During this time of war, abolishing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will strengthen our fighting force by allowing all capable Americans to serve our country honorably, regardless of their sexual orientation. To suggest the men and women of our military are incapable of handling this is an insult to their professionalism.

Those who oppose this policy—rapidly dwindling in their numbers—are growing in their desperation. Arguments at Tuesday’s hearing ranged from Senator Chambliss’ predictions that our troops will devolve into a life of booze and “body art” as order and discipline disintegrates into chaos to Senator McCain’s insistence that the policy should be kept in place because it is “well understood.” Well, senator, just because blacks understood their place was at the back of the bus or that they weren’t fit to be served at the counter, does that mean those policies should have stayed in place, too? I think not.

The Victims of Don't Ask, Don't TellBut, those of us who support repeal shouldn’t break out the Champagne just yet. While Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen, and now Colin Powell have delivered mortal wounds to this discriminatory policy, we cannot rest until we’ve accomplished the mission. If the battle for health care has taught us anything, it’s that a handful of citizens screaming in a town hall meeting can send even the best-intentioned politicians running away from smart policy.

While our friends in opposition continue to stand in the way of progress, we should be calling for smart repeal.

So the question becomes, what does smart repeal look like? First, Admiral Mullen and Secretary Gates are right to ask for time, and Congress and supporters of repeal should give it to them. Successful repeal requires a change in climate from the top down—and that takes time. Our military is still a huge bureaucracy with countless policies and rules to update, and classes and procedures to develop in order to guarantee a smooth transition.

In the upcoming defense appropriation, Congress should include a provision repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell at the end of a period of 12 to 18 months. In the meantime, the military should suspend all discharges on the basis of orientation. Secretary Gates has ordered the halt of a small number of discharges—why not stop them all?

While military leaders survey the force and prepare to end the policy, we shouldn’t be surprised to find any number of troops who are uncomfortable with the idea of open service—just as there was predictable opposition to integrated service in the 1940s. The military has a great deal to learn about these men and women and programs must be developed to assuage their fears.

After the military has had time to wargame possible hiccups on the road to repeal—and I believe there will be some—the military will be in an excellent position to move forward with a stronger, fully integrated force.

Finally, the last element of smart repeal relates to the estimated 13,500 men and women who have already been discharged as a result of this wrongheaded policy. I know people like my West Point classmate Lt. Dan Choi and I still have a very strong desire to serve our country. For those still fit for duty, they should be given the option to once again wear the uniform and continue their valuable service defending America. And for those who were given a less-than-honorable discharge, and denied full veterans benefits, a system must be put in place to review their discharge classifications and upgrade them to honorable when deemed appropriate.

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Navigating the next few months carefully will be critical to the success of reversing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I am cautiously optimistic that the White House, with the clear support of the Department of Defense, can pressure Congress to bring this 17-year-old policy debacle to an end. It’s the right thing to do, and the strength of our military depends on it.

Anthony Woods, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, was discharged from the U.S. Army in 2008 for violating the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.