A Veterans Day Tribute To Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Heroes
Every current or former service member is extraordinary for two simple reasons: they agreed to defend our nation against enemies even at risk to their own lives; and they took an oath to defend our constitution and our democracy. This Veterans Day I would like to call out a few of those extraordinary heroes who played roles in repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Admiral Mike Mullen was the first sitting Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to testify that Congress should repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” “I have served with [lesbian, gay and bisexual service members] since 1968,” Mullen told the Senate armed services committee. “Everybody in the military has, and we understand that. … No matter how I look at the issue, 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. For me, it comes down to integrity — theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.”
When President Barack Obama acknowledged Admiral Mullen at the signing ceremony enacting repeal of “Don’t Ask, don’t tell,” there was rapturous applause. “You would have thought it was for Lady Gaga,” said Jeff Cleghorn, a former Army Major and staff attorney at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, the organization I co-founded with Michelle Benecke to repeal the ban. Senator Joe Lieberman turned to Mullen and said, “Gee, Mike, I guess you didn’t think you’d see the day when you were the most popular guy in gay America.”
Representative Patrick Murphy is the Iraq veteran who led the successful repeal effort in the House of Representatives. I first met him one month after his election in 2007 at the Renaissance weekend in Charleston, South Carolina and said we needed his leadership. He took the reins of repeal in 2009. He faced death threats for his efforts and lost his reelection in 2010, one month before repeal. Why did he risk so much? “It’s pretty simple,” he said. “I have two little kids who are five and two, and I want them to be proud of what their daddy fought for when he had the chance to serve his country.” He was at a Flyer’s game on December 18th when the Senate passed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act” and he received a call he will cherish forever. “Is this Murph? This is Barack.”
General Carter Ham, commanding general of U.S. Army Europe, was tasked along with Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson to conduct a study on the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2010. He and Johnson led a Comprehensive Review Working Group, comprising 68 staff from across the Department of Defense and each of the military services. The group distributed 400,000 questionnaires, conducted 95 face-to-face forums where it interacted with over 24,000 service members. More than 150,000 questionnaires were sent to military spouses and an anonymous online “inbox” collected 72,384 comments from service members and their families. Johnson told me that Ham was particularly moved by the stories LGBT service members submitted anonymously. What was even more extraordinary is that Ham reportedly told lawmakers that he is “personally opposed to homosexuality,” according to The Washington Post. When I spoke with him several years later, he said, “I had to go where the evidence led, and not let my religious views get in the way.”
Admiral Mullen told me that repealing “Don’t ask, don’t tell” happened when it did because there were individuals in positions of power who concluded that repeal was in our national security interest. Repeal would not have happened had he, Ham and Obama had not been there. Indeed, it would remain the law today had repeal not occurred then. Repeal would also not have happened without Senators Levin, Lieberman, and Collins, and Representatives Pelosi, Hoyer, and Murphy.
Repeal also would not have happened without so many of you who loudly or quietly lit the path forward. Repeal is ultimately a tribute to all the service members who told their truth. To the brave souls who came out to friends, family, colleagues and commanders, to those who pounded the halls of Congress, to those who submitted anonymous testimonials to the Working Group hotline, to those who quietly pulled leaders aside and encouraged them to do the right thing and those who handcuffed themselves to the White House fence, to those who were out to their unit mates and served with distinction despite the Damocles sword of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” that could have ended their careers, to those who filed suit in court and demanded justice, to the friends and family who supported our LGBTQ patriots, thank you for your extraordinary service. For defending our constitution. And for making America better. Happy Veterans Day.