End the charade

February 21, 2005

THEY LEAVE the comfort of civilian life for often primitive, sometimes ghastly, accommodations in the field. They help shoulder the burden of protecting the nation while coping with the 24-7 terror of modern warfare.

Blood, sweat, toil and tears -- all are available to them in abundance. But when it comes to sharing with comrades the most poignant details of their personal lives, they must resist, maintaining an emotional distance no matter the cost to morale.

Don't ask, don't tell, the 1993 compromise that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the U.S. military as long as they keep their sexual orientation a secret, was a cruel bargain that has outlived its purpose.

The legal, social and military context in which that deal was struck has changed so much since then, it's way past time to end the charade and allow the gay military personnel who have always been a part of our nation's defense to serve openly.

The value of these soldiers, sailors and aviators -- regular forces and reserves -- was demonstrated most recently by Defense Department statistics showing that the number of service members discharged for being openly gay dropped 15 percent between 2003 and 2004, and by nearly half since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. This is a pattern seen frequently during wartime when the demand for military troops is high.

It suggests that top-brass concerns that openly gay troops disrupt unit cohesion and undermine the mission are groundless, or at least secondary to the primary task of maintaining troop strength. Either way, it's the height of hypocrisy for military leaders to trim gay service people from their ranks more aggressively when demand for their skills is lower.

What's more, considering the relative ease with which gay members could escape nightmarish duty in Iraq or Afghanistan with an honorable discharge by simply declaring their sexual orientation, it seems a tribute to their courage and commitment that apparently many have chosen not to.

The "don't ask, don't tell" policy was approved by Congress in 1993 after the Pentagon's uniformed leadership objected to President Bill Clinton's attempt to lift an outright ban on gays in the military.

As a tribute to all the brave men and women of whom the country has asked so much in recent years, Congress should repeal the 1993 law and allow the Pentagon to evaluate its volunteers on the quality of their service, not the nature of their personal lives.

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