by Bob Roehr
WASHINGTON, DC –
The first congressional hearing on repeal of the antigay military policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) was a heavy dose of inspirational patriotism from witnesses and representatives, interspersed with the paranoia of opponents that verged on farce.
Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), chair of the House Armed Services subcommittee on Military Personnel, opened the July 23 session by saying that the policy has resulted in “the loss of service members with critical skills needed in the field right now.”
Davis pledged to hold a fair hearing, but also acknowledged support of repeal, “after talking with many servicemembers, active duty, reserve and retired, and concluded that the open service of gay men and women need not present an operational problem.”
Ranking Republican John M. McHugh (New York), said Congress passed DADT because it concluded that the presence of gays serving openly might undermine “morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability…Our challenge is to examine and determine whether that conclusion of 1993 remains valid here in 2008.”
Major General Vance Coleman, U.S. Army (Ret.) entered an Army that was still segregated. Over his more than thirty years of service the military successfully integrated blacks and women into its ranks.
“Military leadership is about being able to constantly adapt to change. That is why we are the best military in the world and that is why we are better than the outdated arguments that some still use to prop up ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Coleman testified.
Captain Joan E. Darrah, U.S. Navy (Ret.), was an intelligence officer in charge of 400 military and 1,100 civilians – some of whom were openly gay – on 9/11 when the plane highjacked by terrorists slammed into the Pentagon.
“The space that I had been in minutes earlier was completely destroyed. Seven of my coworkers were killed. The reality is that if I had been killed, my partner of then 11 years, would have been the last to know as I had not dared to list her in my emergency contact information.”
That experience made Darrah realize the stress and the toll that DADT had taken on her, having to live two separate lives. It caused Darrah to reassess her priorities and retire early from a career of nearly thirty years.
Marine Staff Sergeant Eric Alva told of the searing pain of losing his right leg to a land mine as the first American casualty in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Many of his colleagues had known he was gay during his 13 years in the military and it did not affect how they interacted with him.
Alva bristled at the fact “that I had fought and nearly died to secure rights for others that I myself was not free to enjoy. I had proudly served a country that was not proud of me.” He was “appalled” that DADT “forces trained and ready troops to choose between serving their country and living openly. It undercuts unit cohesion by forcing people to lie about themselves; while kicking them out reduces military readiness.”
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, supported retention of DADT in testimony laced with venom, paranoia, and twisting of facts.
She went on about “forced cohabitation of men and women with homosexuals in the military” and rates of HIV. She asserted that allowing gays to serve in the military would result in persons with strong religious beliefs being “herded out.”
Donnelly raised an incident of lesbian harassment of a recruit as reason why gays should not be allowed to serve. But she neglected to say that the incident occurred nearly two decades prior to DADT being enacted, or that the perpetrators were prosecuted for their actions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Several members of the subcommittee vied over which was the most outrageous of Donnelley’s comments.
Freshman Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Penn.) served in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division. He lit into her on the subject of unit cohesion. “You are basically asserting that straight men and women in our military aren’t professional enough to serve with openly gay troops while successfully completing their military mission. I think that is an insult to me and to many soldiers.”
He noted that 24 allied countries allow gays to serve openly in their militaries and that has caused no significant problems.
“Ms. Donnelly, can you please justify your position that American servicemen and women are less professional and less mission capable” than members of those other militaries.
Donnelly said the U.S. is the best military in the world and shouldn’t be compared with lesser forces. She talked about misconduct, but Murphy said there were regulations to deal with that; the DADT policy addressed orientation.
Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) said all agree that “heterosexual misconduct, homosexual misconduct, is wrong. I think it is scurrilous to bring it up because it really distorts the issue.” Shays called DADT “unpatriotic, counterproductive and absolutely cruel.”
He raised the example of now retired openly gay Republican colleague Jim Kolbe (Arizona), who served on small river boats in Vietnam and risked his life practically every day. At the same time, Shays was a conscientious objector who served in the Peace Corp. “I was deemed worthy, but he wasn’t.” He thought that outrageous.
Vic Snyder (D-Arkansas) said supporters of DADT define unit cohesion “by the lowest common denominator. There are people in the military who believe that unit cohesion can be enhanced if our military reflected the opportunity and freedom that we believe is America,” rather than fears.
Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Rep. Davis said she does not anticipate a vote on the legislation during this session of Congress. There probably will be at least one more hearing next spring, though she said it was difficult to anticipate a complete timeline for action.
Aubrey Sarvis, the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), called it “a great beginning on the journey to repeal. I look forward to the hearings in the next Congress in the House and the Senate.”
“This was a great way to begin the conversation,” said Dixon Osburn, founding director of SLDN. “Given the mood of the committee, I think that it is very clear that the days of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ are numbered.”
“If you look at the tenor of the conversation today versus 1993, it was night and day. They weren’t willing to buy into the stereotypes and throw away comments from the opposition, they really pressed hard on it. That was good. It showed that education over 15 years has been working.”
Osburn said it was very important that members of Congress at the hearing “were not cowed by those who assert that [repeal] is bad for the military.”
He thought the comments of Rep. Murphy were representative of a generational change in Congress that has occurred since DADT was enacted. Osborn anticipates that “Congress is likely to face a huge sea change in November, with a lot of new people coming in who I think will be very supportive of repeal.”
Links to documents and a webcast of the hearing can be accessed at: http://www.house.gov/hasc/hearing_information.shtml