Where Truman led, Obama defers

It's time for President Obama to lead the way for repeal this year of ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell''

In his State of the Union message President Barack Obama said repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the right thing to do. But last Friday evening he did the wrong thing, and in doing so he and his Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, delivered a devastating blow to getting repeal done this year.

Following a letter to Capitol Hill from Secretary Gates — signed along with Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — stating they strongly opposed any legislation to repeal DADT this year – the White House released a statement of its own: “The President’s commitment to repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is unequivocal.”

That’s nonsense.

There is a stark and not very flattering contrast here between President Obama, who follows his military, and President Harry S Truman, whose military followed him. In 1948, virtually all of the Pentagon brass was opposed to ending segregation in the ranks. The brass said the troops will never stand for it. After listening to their arguments, Truman looked them in the eyes and did the right thing.

“It’s about leadership,” Truman said.

Truman was facing a tough election that year, and he still pushed forward a policy that did not have even 50 percent of the public behind it. Why did he do it? Because it was the right thing to do.

It is becoming clearer every day that where Truman led, Obama is deferring, kicking repeal down the road — again.

As a result of the commander in chief’s decision to defer to the defense secretary’s wishes and timeline, lesbian and gay service members will continue to be treated as second-class citizens, and any sense of fairness may well have been delayed for yet another year, perhaps for another decade.

The president did not sound like a fierce repeal advocate. He sounded like someone who wants to have it both ways. And that is not leadership. That is politics as usual.

The blatant truth is that we have the votes in the House and we’re close to having the votes in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Repeal can happen this year, but this will require the president to lead the way. To put it bluntly, we need his voice and help now. We also need to ensure that the recommendations of the Pentagon Working Group are received and considered by the respective Armed Services Committees before repeal is final. This is called compromise. It’s called staying at the table.

The president told the American people in his State of the Union Address: “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are. It’s the right thing to do.”

Servicemembers around the world took the president at his word; we still do. It’s time for the president and commander in chief to speak clearly and frankly, and act.

We continue to see the causalities of DADT almost every day. Since 1993, we have assisted more than 10,000 LGBT servicemembers with information and free legal services. Out hotline receives multiple calls a day from people serving all over the world. And the discharges haven’t stopped.

The release of the White House statement and the Pentagon letter were carefully timed to catch us napping. But we were not asleep. We protested outside the White House on Sunday because the president and Congress need to do the right thing and stop firing lesbian and gay service members simply because of who they are. It’s a matter of our national security.

Some of us have been silent and respectful for too long. Today we insist that there be full citizenship for all servicemembers — this year.

Our servicemembers refuse to play the politics-as-usual game. We are going to stay at the table with our vote, our money, and our feet. Mr. President, show us the path to getting repeal done this year.

Lead and we will follow.

Aubrey Sarvis, an Army veteran, is the executive director of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.

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