US Congress holds first hearing on gays in the military

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Yesterday the United State House of Representatives Armed Services Committee’s Military Personnel Subcommittee held the first hearing into a possible repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

While nobody from the Pentagon appeared before the committee, several former Armed Forces personnel gave personal testimony of the effect of the ban on openly gay, bisexual or lesbian people serving.

“At this time of war for our men and women in uniform, it has been asked why we would hold this hearing,” said Chairwoman Susan Davis, a California Democrat.

“Since 1993, the Department of Defence has removed approximately 12,600 service members from the military under Section 654, Title 10 U.S. Code, commonly known as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

“With this policy comes the loss of service members with critical skills needed in the field right now, including much needed language expertise.

“Our purpose today is to begin a long overdue review of the various perspectives of this law and policy and to start a conversation about the real life impact on our service members, their families and the operational readiness of our military.

“Many Americans who happen to be gay or lesbian want to answer our nation’s call to service, and allowing them to serve in an open and honest manner would uphold the ideals of military service.”

Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the Presidential order that ended racial segregation in the US Armed Forces. The significance was not lost on the committee.

A retired heterosexual African American soldier, Major General Vance Coleman, made a direct comparison.

“It’s bewildering and counterintuitive to me that we maintain a federal law that says no matter how well a person does his or her job, no matter how integral they are to their unit, they must be removed, disrespected and dismissed because of who they happen to be or who they happen to love,” Coleman said, according to NPR.

There was emotional testimony from retired Captain Joan Darrah. The former Navy officer recounted how she was nearly killed in the 11th September 2001 attack on the Pentagon.

“The reality is that if I had been killed, my partner then of 11 years would have been the last to know, as I had not dared to list her name in any of my paperwork or on any of my emergency contact information,” she said, according to NPR.

“It was the events of September 11 that made me realise that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was taking a much greater toll than I had ever admitted.”

Eric Alva, the first soldier to be wounded in the current Iraq conflict, who came out as gay last year, also gave evidence to the committee.

Alva was awarded a Purple Heart award for bravery by the President after stepping on a landmine in Iraq in 2003, breaking his right arm and damaging his leg so badly that it had to be amputated.

Recent polling shows that 75% of Americans want gay people to be able to serve openly.

In May the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said that Congress, and not the military, is responsible for the ban on openly lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans from military service.

Speaking to graduating cadets at West Point military academy, Admiral Mike Mullen said that “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a law that the Armed Forces follow.

“Should the law change, the military will carry that out too,” he said.

An estimated 65,000 lesbian and gay service members serve on active duty and in the reserves of the United States military, according to gay advocacy group the Servicemembers Legal Defence Network.

It said it knows of about 500 gay Army personnel who are serving openly without any consequences.

Democrat Congressman Joe Sestak, who served 31 years in the Navy, retiring with the rank of three-star Admiral, is one of seventeen veterans in Congress who want to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

150 of his Congressional colleagues have lent their support to the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would repeal the law.

In March US Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama supports a repeal of the ban but his Republican opponent John McCain does not favour gays serving openly.