President Barack Obama signed into law legislation lifting the ban on gays serving openly in the military, repealing a 17-year-old policy and fulfilling a campaign promise.
The law will “strengthen our national security and uphold the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend,” Obama said during a signing ceremony this morning at the Interior Department. Members of the armed forces make numerous sacrifices to serve, he said. “None of them should have to sacrifice their integrity as well.”
Repeal of the policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell” was a political victory for the president, who as a candidate campaigned to end the 1993 law because he regarded it as a civil rights issue.
The change won’t happen immediately. The Defense Department must draft a plan for putting new regulations into place and the president and military leaders must certify that allowing gays to serve openly won’t hurt the nation’s war efforts. The president vowed that the transition will be made “swiftly and efficiently.”
Obama thanked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for pushing the repeal through and for “two of the most productive years in Congress.”
He also lauded the “courage and vision” of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for their support for the change.
The president encourages those who were discharged under the policy to re-enlist.
“We will be honored to welcome you into the ranks” of the military once again, he said.
More than 14,000 service members have been discharged under the policy, according to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a gay-rights advocacy group.
“The first casualty in the war in Iraq was a gay soldier,” Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a Michigan Democrat, said during debate Dec. 18. “We cannot let these patriots down.”
Obama said gays have fought in all U.S. wars and conflicts, even if their presence was never acknowledged. “There will never be a full accounting” of their heroism, he said.
“You will serve as role models for all who come after you,” he said to members of the audience.
Critics, including Arizona Republican John McCain and the commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Amos, said repealing the ban would be a threat to order and discipline in the military in a time of war. They asked that any change be delayed.
A Pentagon study found that ending the ban would present a “low” risk to overall military effectiveness. A survey of service members that underpinned the Pentagon report shows that 50 percent to 55 percent said repealing the policy would have a mixed effect or no effect at all, and 15 percent to 20 percent said it would have a positive impact.
Thirty percent of survey respondents overall said ending the ban would have a negative effect, an opinion shared by 40 percent to 60 percent of respondents from the Marine Corps and largely all-male combat units.
A Pentagon task force said in a report last month it still must sort out many numerous revisions to training, military education and regulations that would be needed.
Final action came Dec. 18 when the Senate passed the measure 65-31. The House passed the bill on Dec. 15. Obama had called for the change in his State of the Union address in January.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell,” enacted in 1993 as a compromise during the Clinton administration, permitted gays to serve if their sexual orientation was kept private.
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