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Jane Ahlin, Published May 30 2010

Ahlin: Appropriate military change on Memorial Day weekend

To my mother, Memorial Day always was “Decoration Day.” Indeed, although the term “Decoration Day” dated to early post-Civil War days, the name “Memorial Day” wasn’t used commonly until after World War II and didn’t become the official name by federal law until 1967. No matter; when I was growing up, it sounded like an old-fashioned term to me.

This year, however, “Decoration Day” seems entirely appropriate to this annual day of remembrance. With the votes in the Senate Armed Services Committee and the House of Representatives at the end of the week to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell”– that odd transitional military policy between insisting gay and lesbian troops didn’t exist and accepting their open inclusion – there’s good reason for America to celebrate.

On the day set aside to honor soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice, it appears America finally will stop unfair treatment because of sexual orientation and, in doing so, acknowledge the many who died serving valiantly without being accepted for who they were.

It’s about time. Of the original 12 NATO members in 1949, the U.S. is the only country still classifying gays and lesbians as a category unto themselves. (Even Israel and South Africa removed their bans against gays in the military years ago.) As reported by Stephen Kurczy for the Christian Science Monitor, the nations of “Britain, Canada, Israel, Australia, and South Africa” encountered no real problems after lifting their bans – no “mass ‘coming out’ ” or resignations or disunity. Evidently, before the repeal, “roughly two thirds” of British soldiers said they would “refuse to serve with open gays but in reality no more than three people … actually resigned.”

In other words, the big deal turned out to be a nonevent.

Kurczy also reported that after determining that the U.S. “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was a “disaster,” Great Britain’s military “based its new regulations on the Australian model” of repeal that also “banned public displays of affection, harassment, and inappropriate relationships – regardless of whether the couple was gay or straight.” Consider what simple, common sense those nations showed in putting all open romantic expression into the context of military correctness. As a result, decorum was maintained and upheaval among the troops did not occur.

Over the past decade, clinging to DADT has become an embarrassment to our country, the continuance of an unworkable policy Americans never liked and now clearly don’t want. Nothing points that up better than a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey done just this past week, which showed

78 percent of Americans approving of openly gay and lesbian people serving in the military. That the policy was not changed earlier says more about the political power of right- wing religion in this nation than it does about the will of the American people.

If some of the military brass are wary about repeal, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen are not. They see repeal as a foregone conclusion; their concern is “how” it occurs not “if” it occurs. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs John Shalikashvili put it in stronger terms, saying “it is not only preferable, but essential that (DADT) be repealed in order for the Service Chiefs to retain the very authority they require to do their jobs effectively.”

Military effectiveness depends not only on the readiness of the troops but also on their shared sense of honor up and down the chain of command. Pretending (“don’t ask”) and lying (“don’t tell”) are not honorable traits. Thirteen thousand to 14,000 troops have been dismissed under DADT, including at least five dozen Arabic translators whose expertise continues to be sorely needed. And yet, it is the personal story of each of those thousands and thousands of good soldiers that is our nation’s shame.

A letter read on a national talk show says it best: “I found out this soldier under my command was gay. I learned about it after he died, when his longtime partner wrote to me … to tell me how much this staff sergeant had loved the army. …”

Turns out, the officer who received the letter also is gay.


Ahlin is a weekly contributor to The Forum’s Sunday commentary page. E-mail janeahlin@yahoo.com