Today [May 27], leaders in Congress are expected to finally move to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" law that requires lesbian, gay and bisexual service members to conceal their sexual orientation. As a retired general who served for 35 years, I have always known that gay people were among my peers. During my years of service between 1971 and 2006, most of them served in secret, but not all. And as the years wore on and the world changed, the Army changed too, with more and more gay people serving openly and honestly despite the restrictions of the policy.
Since my retirement, I have had the chance to speak often with young military men and women, and to review some of the extensive research on the issue of openly gay service. These bright, professional young troops say it doesn't matter to them if their unit mates are gay or straight. "If they can shoot, move and do their job, and keep me from getting yet another deployment," they tell me, "bring them on." The overwhelming majority say lifting the ban would have no impact on morale, cohesion and effectiveness. Polls bear out this sentiment, with three-quarters of troops saying they are personally comfortable around gay people, and a steadily dropping rate of opposition to openly gay service from within the force.
It's not just the changing opinion of young troops that suggests we are ready to lift the ban. Twenty-five foreign countries allow openly gay service, and none of them have seen any damage to readiness. The U.S. military has even acknowledged that the current ban on openly gay service is not grounded in any research findings, because none has ever shown a link between openly gay service and a drop in readiness.
Some say now is not the time to make the change, while we're fighting two wars abroad. To the contrary, now is exactly the time. These war efforts require all the capable people we can find. Yet as a result of shortfalls -- made worse by the discharge of thousands of qualified gay troops -- the military has lowered its standards for age, physical fitness, education, and even criminal background. The military is admitting overweight, under-educated felons over trained Arabic speakers and medical professionals who have none of these flaws but simply have a different sexual orientation.
A final reason to lift this ban has to do with values. The policy has created a glaring conflict, where the military praises the importance of integrity and honor, while forcing gay troops to lie about who they are. As the world continues to change and acceptance of homosexuality grows, fewer and fewer of our most patriotic gay people will be willing to accept this honor breach as a condition of service.
The Pentagon has appointed a Working Group to study how to lift the ban. Some think Congress should wait to repeal the policy until the Working Group releases its findings, due Dec. 1. But these calls for delay should raise eyebrows. The Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, has said this group is studying how, not whether, to lift the ban. The study should therefore not be used as a reason to delay. If the Pentagon wants time to incorporate the group's recommendations, legislative change can easily build in a timetable to allow final input from the group.
The research is clear that this change can be made without harming readiness. Three-quarters of the public along with the Commander-in-Chief have made clear their wish to see the policy end. Congress should not spend another year propping up a failed policy that harms both our military and our nation.
Laich, an alumnus of West Virginia University, is a 35-year veteran of the Army Reserve.