The U.S. Senate has voted overwhelmingly to end America's ban on openly-gay military service, setting the stage for what some are calling a major advancement of civil rights and others are decrying as risky social engineering at a time of war. A handful of Republican senators joined a united Democratic caucus to repeal the law known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."
The Senate vote paves the way for homosexual troops to serve without fear of discharge for their orientation. Some 14,000 American service members have been expelled under a 1993 law that permits gays in uniform only if their sexuality remains secret.
The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, spoke passionately ahead of the landmark vote. "The first casualty in the war in Iraq was a gay soldier. A [land]mine took off his right leg. And that mine that took off his leg didn't give a darn whether he was gay or straight [heterosexual]. We shouldn't, either," he said.
Senate action on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" had been in doubt until several moderate Republicans announced support for repeal. Intensively lobbying them was Independent Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who said ending the ban on openly-gay military service is in keeping with America's ideals of liberty and equality. "We have an opportunity not just to right a wrong, not just to honor the service of American patriots who happen to be gay and lesbian, but to advance the values that the founders of our country articulated in our original American documents," he said.
Repeal opponents argued against forcing the military to revise personnel policies at a time of war. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona disputed claims that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" harms the armed forces by expelling qualified soldiers. "The military has the highest recruiting and highest retention [rates] of any time in its history," he said.
McCain accused Democrats of subverting national security interests to the narrow agenda of leftist activists. But even before a vote had been cast, he conceded that the ban on openly-gay service would end. He then made a prediction: "I am confident that, with this repeal, our military - the best in the world - will salute and do the best they can to carry out the orders of the commander-in-chief. That is the nature of our military. But don't think that it will not be at great cost," he said.
McCain pointed to comments by America's top Marine officer suggesting that the presence of gay troops could prove a distraction in combat and lead to casualties. General James Amos expressed opposition to lifting "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", but said Marines will comply with any directive they are given. A recent Pentagon study showed most service members have few, if any objections to serving alongside an openly-gay colleague.
President Barack Obama and America's top military officials hailed the Senate vote, which sends the bill to the president's desk. Once signed into law, the Defense Department will have several months to prepare for the change in policy. The bill stipulates that existing policy will remain in effect until the president, the secretary of defense, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff affirm that the Pentagon is ready to implement the change.
While conservative social groups lambasted the Senate vote, repeal advocates are celebrating.
"It's an exciting day," said David Hall, a former Air Force staff sergeant discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell. He was one of dozens of gay ex-service members who watched Saturday's vote from the Senate gallery. "Our military is going to be better. It [repeal] is not going to be a huge change in the military. Now we are just not going to get rid of qualified people," he said.
Once implemented, repeal will quell court battles surrounding "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". A federal appeals court is currently reviewing a lower court ruling that found the policy unconstitutional.