September 21, 2011 at 12:31 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Demise of ‘Don’t Ask’ celebrated, but questions linger

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Top Pentagon leaders and lawmakers celebrated the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” this week as questions about the impact of the law’s repeal persist for gay service members.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said during a news conference that the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is “an historic day for the Pentagon and for the nation.”

“As secretary of defense, I am committed to removing all of the barriers that would prevent Americans from serving their country and from rising to the highest level of responsibility that their talents and capabilities warrant,” Panetta said. “These are men and women who put their lives on the line in the defense of this country, and that’s what should matter the most.”

Panetta said more than 97 percent of the 2.3 million men and women in the armed forces have received education and training on handling open service. The training started after President Obama signed repeal legislation in December.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who was likely making his final appearance before the media in his role before stepping down from his position Oct. 1, recalled the testimony he gave before the Senate in February 2010 in favor of repeal.

“I believed then, and I still believe, that it was first and foremost a matter of integrity; that it was fundamentally against everything we stand for as an institution to force people to lie about who they are just to wear a uniform,” Mullen said. “We are better than that. We should be better than that.”

Hours earlier, U.S. senators who were among the 65 who voted for repeal held a separate news conference to commemorate the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  Sens. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), the original co-sponsors of the repeal legislation, were joined by Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Lieberman said the effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in Congress was one of the most satisfying and thrilling experiences he’s had as a senator.

“In our time, I think the front line of the civil rights movement is to protect people in our country from discrimination based on sexual orientation — all the more so when it comes to the United States military, whose mission is to protect our security so we can continue to enjoy the freedom and equal opportunity under law,” Lieberman said.

Sen. Susan Collins (center) with other U.S. senators (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Collins read aloud a postcard she received in July after her committee vote in favor of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal from someone in Afghanistan who signed the note anonymously as “an Army soldier.” The postcard thanks Collins for her vote as a Republican and pledges to repay the vote “with continued professionalism.”

“This touches me so much for two reasons,” Collins said. “One, that this Army soldier deployed in Afghanistan took the time to write to thank me for my leadership. But second, it is so poignant that he couldn’t sign his name. He had to write, ‘an Army soldier,’ and today he can sign his name, and that makes all the difference.”

Amid the celebrations over the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” at these news conferences, questions emerged about how to extend greater benefits to LGBT service members.

Only half the senators at the news conference — Udall, Gillibrand and Coons — are co-sponsors of legislation that would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits same-sex marriage. Collins, Lieberman and Levin aren’t co-sponsors of the legislation known as the Respect for Marriage Act.

Collins left the news conference at the start of the question-and-answer period. In response to a question from the Washington Blade, Levin affirmed his support for the Respect for Marriage Act, while Lieberman offered qualified support.

The Connecticut senator said he had issues with the “full faith and credit” portion of the Respect for Marriage Act enabling federal benefits to flow to married gay couples even if they live in a state that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage.

“I do support it in part — I think we’ve got to celebrate what we’ve done today — I certainly support it in regard to discrimination in federal law based on sexual orientation,” Lieberman said.

During the Pentagon news conference, one reporter asked about possible guards against troops opposed to open service attempting to undermine it by committing acts of harassment or violence against gays.

Panetta said the military has “zero tolerance” for harassment and the command structure in place should address any such behavior.

“My hope is that the command structure operating with … the standard disciplines that are in place will implement those disciplines and will ensure that harassment doesn’t take place and that all behavior is consistent with the discipline and the best interests of our military,” Panetta said.

Some advocates have said the chain of command doesn’t provide sufficient protection against discrimination for gay service members — particularly if the discrimination is coming from a commanding officer — and have called on Obama to sign an executive order barring discrimination in the armed forces on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Another lingering question is whether military chaplains can officiate at same-sex weddings and if base facilities can be used for such ceremonies in states where same-sex marriage is legal.

A Navy memo dated April 13 affirmed that chaplains could officiate at same-sex weddings and base facilities could be used for this purpose, but this guidance was rescinded after an outcry from social conservatives. Guidance on the matter has yet to be reissued.

Following the Pentagon news conference, Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson took questions from the media, and, in response to a question from the Blade, said such guidance clarifying the rules is forthcoming.

“We are very, very close to having a resolution of that issue,” Johnson said. “It’s something I’ve been working on myself. … We’re pretty much done and there should be something issued to the chaplain community and others very, very soon on that.”


Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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