Press Release

Gillibrand Statement For Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing On “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”

Feb 2, 2010

Washington, D.C. – Today, as the Senate Armed Service Committee holds the first hearing on the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy since it was first established 17 years ago, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand issued the following statement. Senator Gillibrand is helping lead the charge in the Senate to repeal the unjust, harmful policy that undercuts the civil rights of some of America’s bravest men and women, and weakens America’s national security.

Chairman Levin, Senator McCain, distinguished Members of the Committee; I appreciate your leadership in hosting this important hearing today.  

James Madison once said, “Equal laws protecting equal rights… the best guarantee of loyalty & love of country.”

Lesbian and Gay servicemen and women have been serving in our armed forces bravely while being denied the full equality they deserve. Since 1993, more than 13,500 American troops have been discharged from the military under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), at an estimated cost of over $400 million. Those discharges include more than 800 specialists with skills deemed mission critical by the U.S. military, including at least 323 linguists, approximately 10% of foreign language speakers, 59 of which specialized in Arabic, and at least nine of which specialized in Farsi, the official language of Iran. Among these specialists were pilots, engineers, doctors, nurses, and combat medics, all of which the military has faced shortfalls of in recent years. 

These brave Americans were not discharged because of poor performance, but rather because of their sexual orientation.

According to a recent study by the Williams Institute, an estimated 66,000 lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals are serving in the US military. According to data provided by the Department of Defense, discharges under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps declined to 428 in 2009 from 619 the previous year. This represents a 65% drop since 2001, the highest number on record.

In a time of war, discharges have decreased, even as anecdotal evidence strongly suggests larger numbers of lesbian and gay service members are serving openly. Despite the current law, individual commanders are deciding to retain otherwise qualified personnel.  

Why is this the case? Because the Armed Forces is experiencing shortfalls in several types of mission-critical personnel, especially in the midst of fighting ongoing wars, and is losing additional trained and highly qualified personnel under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It has been estimated that the U.S. military loses more than 4,000 gay and lesbian military personnel each year, which it would have otherwise retained, had the service members been able to be open about their sexual orientation, and that more than 40,000 recruits might join if the ban is lifted.  Commanders on the ground believe what many of us strongly believe—it’s time to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

In a January 2007 Op-Ed article published in The New York Times, General John M. Shalikashvili, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the policy was enacted, stated that his opinion was that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell should be repealed. He argued that due to the U.S. military being stretched thin by its current deployments in the Middle East, the Armed Forces need to accept every American who is willing and able to serve. Last week I was proud to share another statement from General Shalikashvili, 1 of only 17 people in the country’s history to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calling for an end to this failed policy.  In his statement he said:

“When I was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my support of the current policy was based on my belief that implementing a change in the rules would have been too burdensome for our troops and commanders at the time.

“The concern among many at that time, was that letting people who were openly gay serve would lower morale, harm recruitment and undermine unit cohesion. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was seen as a useful measure that allowed time to pass while our culture continued to evolve. The question before us now is whether enough time has gone by to give this policy serious reconsideration. I believe that it has.”

Twenty-five foreign militaries now let gays serve openly, including our closest ally, Britain.  I sit on the Foreign Relations Committee and I am acutely aware that most of our allies – Israel, Britain, France, 22 of 26 NATO nations in all – allow gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly and I believe the American military should follow suit. At a time when our nation is fighting two wars, and with increased national security threats, we can ill afford this loss of personnel and talent in our national defense. Our military is the best in the world. Once gay and lesbian service members are allowed to serve openly, our military will still be the best in the world.

As we look at the path that has brought us to this hearing today, regarding how best to repeal the Don’t ask, Don’t Tell policy, I am reminded of several leaders in the fight to allow openly gay service members into the Armed Forces.

One is then West Point Cadet, Lt. Alexander Raggio. In his 2006 award winning thesis he stated:

“The military should abandon the false acceptance of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and allow the open service of homosexuals immediately.” And he added, “Current policy cannot be rationally explained except as a reflection of the personal prejudices of those who create and enforce it and, rationalized by faulty logic and double standards.”

These steps towards equality are our duty.  I strongly believe that equality is an inalienable American right – and should not be ascribed based on gender or race, religion or sexual orientation or gender identity. America must lead by example when it comes to equality and justice.  Freedom from discrimination is a basic right that all Americans should enjoy. Lifting the ban on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is not only necessary for realizing equality, but it’s necessary for ensuring that our armed forces remain the best in the world.

Pepe Johnson, a former Sergeant, U.S. Army sums up the moral imperative on why we have to change this policy. Every day this policy remains we ask these soldiers to lie about who they are, Pepe said  “Honesty and integrity are everything in the army.  I felt if I was lying, I didn’t have it.  I wasn’t serving with integrity. I felt trapped. Lying is not the way of the Army — I felt I was violating regulation.

“During the three years I served I only wanted to be all I could be – to borrow the old recruiting slogan – but Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell forced me to be something other than what I was. And that’s not consistent with the Army’s Values: ‘Leaders are honest to others by not presenting themselves or their actions as anything other than what they are, remaining committed to the truth.’ (FM 6-22, Army Leadership) As long as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell exists, there is a hole in the integrity of the entire military.”

We must recognize that human dignity and respect are part and parcel of who we were as Americans – male or female, African American or Caucasian, Gay or Straight, Bisexual or Transgender. 

We must ensure that our armed forces are fully prepared with the best resources we can muster.  Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is a threat to our men and women in uniform and our national security. We cannot afford to handicap our efforts because of ignorance or hatred. 

This policy is wrong for our national security and inconsistent with the moral foundation upon which our country was founded. It is critically important for this Congress to take up President Obama’s call to permanently end the ban on LGBT Americans serving in our armed services. We will strengthen America – both militarily and morally — by repealing this discriminatory policy.