Ending 'Don't ask, don't tell' is about more than gays in the military

Tuesday marked the end of the Pentagon's nearly two-decade policy barring openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual people from military service. The death of "Don't ask, don't tell" is a big win for the LGBT rights community, but it may be an even bigger win for the nation's military and the communities that play host to major military installations. That's because the end of this discriminatory policy may go a long way toward dispelling the notion that there is a sharp divide between the culture of the military and that of society at large.

Since the shift to an all-volunteer force in 1973, there has been widespread concern about an emerging cultural gap between service members and the nation's civilian population. The prevailing view has long been that the "military culture" is more socially conservative and inward looking. In its findings in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 1994, Congress declared that "Military life is fundamentally different from civilian life," and that "the military society is characterized by its own laws, rules, customs, and traditions, including numerous restrictions on personal behavior, that would not be acceptable in civilian society." Presumably, at least until Tuesday, this included the wholesale exclusion of a broad section of American society.

Many prominent and well-positioned observers believe that the gap has grown wider since the beginning of the war on terror. In a September 2010 speech, Defense Secretary Robert Gates repeatedly returned to the theme of the growing disconnect between today's professional soldiers and the civilian society they serve. According to Mr. Gates, "even after 9/11, in the absence of a draft, for a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do."

Other senior government officials have expressed similar concerns. In his 2010 farewell speech, Rep. Ike Skelton, the outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, warned of what he perceived to be a "civil-military gap, a lack of understanding between civilians and the military that has grown in the era of an all-volunteer force."

This is of particular concern in Maryland. 2011 U.S. Census estimates put Maryland's veteran population at 465,727, and current Department of Defense figures put the total number of active and reserve service members in the state at slightly more than 57,000. Thousands more veterans and service members live and work in Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia. Our state's small size and high population density mean that nearly every community in Maryland has a substantial contact with the "military culture."

All of this brings us back to the significance of the administration's push to end "Don't ask, don't tell," and perhaps more importantly, the acquiescence of the military community to the change. In a 2010 congressional hearing on the subject, Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Service Committee, "it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do." During that same hearing, Secretary Gates referred to the findings of a 2010 comprehensive study on military personnel's opinion on repealing the ban when he offered that "a strong majority of those who answered the survey — more than two thirds — do not object to gays and lesbians serving openly in uniform."

If the views of Admiral Mullen and Secretary Gates truly reflect those of the broader military community, it would suggest that any cultural gap between the military and civilian sectors, at least on this issue, is much less pronounced than previously believed. Polls show nearly 60 percent of the U.S. population supporting a repeal of the ban on gays serving openly, and several states, including Maryland, have either repealed restrictions on gay marriage or taken strong steps toward doing so. This change brings official military policy much more closely in line with the prevailing view among the public at large and a majority of active service members, and the associated fanfare has drawn attention to this major point of convergence between the country's civilian and military sectors.

The change should be celebrated as a major victory by LGBT rights advocates — but perhaps even more importantly, as a positive development in the realm of civilian-military relations. The military should take this opportunity to highlight the inclusiveness that has long defined it in most other areas. This is a wonderful opportunity to reclaim the position at the vanguard of the civil rights movement that the military previously occupied and to demonstrate to the public, both in Maryland and across the nation, that the military and nonmilitary cultures are not really that different after all.

Brandon J. Robers, a Silver Spring resident, is a former Army noncommissioned officer. He works as a trial attorney with the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. His email is brandonrobers@hotmail.com.

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