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12000 Flags and 28 Flag Officers
Make a Powerful Statement
RADM Alan M. Steinman, USCG/USPHS (Ret)

On November 30, 2007, the 14th anniversary of the infamous “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law (DADT), two major events happened on the Capitol Mall in Washington, DC that will stand as milestones in the fight to repeal DADT. The events were: “12000 Flags for 12000 Patriots” and the release of a public statement signed by 28 retired generals and admirals advocating repeal of DADT and advancing the cause of gays and lesbian serving honestly in the military.

First, “12000 Flags for 12000 Patriots” kicked off a weekend of activities highlighting the loss of valuable men and women from the military under DADT. One small American flag was planted on the Mall for each service member discharged for being gay since the law went into effect in 1993. The idea for this event was the brainchild of Alex Nicholson, founder of Servicemembers United (the former Call to Duty Tour), who himself was kicked out of the Army a few years back, despite being trained as an intelligence specialist and despite speaking multiple languages (now including Arabic).

The purpose of this display was to illustrate the magnitude of the stupidity of wasting the talents, skills and training of 12000 American patriotic citizens who wanted to serve their nation in the Armed Forces.  Each flag on the Mall represented one of those military men and women discharged under the DADT law since its passage in 1993. The event was co-sponsored and funded by 5 leading organizations dedicated to the rights of gay, lesbian and bisexual service men and women to serve honorably in the Armed Forces: Servicemembers United, Human Rights Campaign, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, Log Cabin Republicans, and the Liberty Education Forum. 

The 12000 flags made a visually stunning and poignant backdrop to speeches by the heads of each of the sponsoring organizations and by several veteran service members, including Rhonda Davis (USN), Eric Alva (USMC) and Alex Nicholson himself. There are over 65,000 active duty and reserve GLB service men and women in the military right now.  In order to serve their country, they are required to live a lie, live in fear of being discovered, and violate the very honor codes of their service they have sworn to uphold.  Yet, according to a recent survey of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, 68% of them know for certain or suspect there are gay members of their own unit; 73% say they are comfortable working with gay members of their own unit.  There has been no diminution of unit morale, unit cohesion or combat readiness.  Therefore, why continue with the discriminatory policies of DADT?

Every day on average, two GLB servicemembers are kicked out of the military solely for who they are.  Worse, every year, 3000-3500 GLB servicemembers leave the military, quietly and voluntarily, because of DADT.  These men and women, all of whom are trained, experienced and paid for, would have remained on active duty were it not for DADT.  Over the course of the 14 years DADT has been on the books, that loss of manpower equals a loss of nearly 50000 men and women.  That is a significant hit to national security at a time when the military is desperately seeking bodies, having to lower enlistment standards and issue thousands of "moral waivers" simply to meet recruiting quotas.  And none of those new recruits has the training and experience of the troops who leave voluntarily because they're tired of living in fear of being found out and kicked out.

Not to be outdone, the statement from the 28 retired admirals and generals is immensely important. Following in the footsteps of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili, who early this year publicly stated that he had changed his mind on DADT and now felt that gays and lesbians could serve openly), the statement from these senior military leaders (three of them 3-stars) demonstrates that times have changed in both our nation and within the military establishment. Senior leaders no longer feel that the known presence of gays and lesbians in a unit would be disruptive to unit morale, unit cohesion and combat readiness. Certainly the number of gays and lesbians serving more or less openly now (according to the Palm Center/Zogby Poll mentioned above) speaks to the falsity of the assumption that gays can’t contribute to the nation’s war effort unless they’re “silent, celibate and invisible.”

The 28 Flags Statement was due to the diligent work of both Dr. Aaron Belkin, Director of the Michael G. Palm Center at the University of Santa Barbara, and former Navy senior petty officer Rhonda Davis, herself discharged unjustly under DADT. As noted above, Rhonda was one of the speakers at the Flags on the Mall event. Significantly, one of the generals who signed the statement, Major General Dennis Laich, USA (Ret), personally traveled to Washington, DC to be the spokesman for the other flag officer signatories. Their statement reads as follows:

“We respectfully urge Congress to repeal the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy. Those of us signing this letter have dedicated our lives to defending the rights of our citizens to believe whatever they wish. As General Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs said when the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy was enacted, it is not the place of the military or those in senior leadership to make moral judgments.

Scholarly data show that there are approximately one million gay and lesbian veterans in the United States today, as well as 65,000 gays and lesbians currently serving in our armed forces. They have served our nation honorably.

We support the recent comments of another former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General John Shalikashvili, who has concluded that repealing the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy would not harm, and would indeed help, our armed forces. As is the case in Britain, Israel, and other nations which allow gays and lesbians to serve openly, our service members are professionals who are able to work together effectively despite differences in race, gender, religion, and sexuality. Such collaboration reflects the strength and the best traditions of our democracy.”

I want to personally thank my fellow flag officers for their public support of repealing DADT. Ultimately, this kind of support will be critical in overturning this unjust law.  As for the flags on the mall it is the intention of the sponsoring agencies that “Flags on the Mall” be an annual event, until such time as gays and lesbians can serve openly, honestly and honorably in our Armed Forces.

©  2007  Gay Military Signal