Statements and Speeches
Dec 18 2010
In November, 1948 – one year after my birth – President Harry Truman issued a highly controversial executive order. It called for beginning the process to bring to an end the long-standing policy of racial segregation in the armed forces of our nation.
Just a few years earlier, my father and three of my uncles had served on active duty for much of World War Two. One of them – Bob Patton – was killed in a kamikaze attack on his carrier, the U.S.S. Suwannee in 1944. All four of them were born and raised near the coal mining town of Beckley, West Virginia, where my sister and I were born after the war.
Neither my father nor my uncles ever discussed with us the implementation of Truman’s executive order. Having said that, I later learned that many of the people in my native state opposed it, as did many people in Danville, Virginia– the last capitol of the Confederacy and the place where my sister and I would grow up.
The transition that followed President Truman’s actions was not an easy one, but history would later show that the steps he ordered 62 years ago were the right ones for our military and for our country.
Twenty years after Truman’s historic action, I was commissioned an ensign in the Navy and headed for Pensacola, Florida to begin the training that would enable me to become a naval flight officer. I had just graduated from Ohio State University which I attended on a Navy ROTC scholarship. My sister was not in our ROTC unit at Ohio State. In fact, no women were allowed then to join it or any other ROTC unit, as I recall, or any of our service academies in America either.
A lot of people thought that was just fine, and while there were women who served then in our armed forces, they were denied the opportunities that I – and many other men -- had that enabled us to advance in rank and assume ever-greater responsibilities.
I went on to serve in Southeast Asia and retire as a Navy Captain after 23 years of active and reserve duty. No women served with us in my active duty squadron, but as the years passed, that began to change. Young women gained admission into ROTC programs in colleges across America and into our service academies, as well. They became pilots, flew airplanes and helicopters, served on ships and – someday – will serve on submarines. Today, women are admirals and generals. And while there is still resistance to the transition that continues to this day – much of it understandable – most of us who’ve lived through it would agree that this change has helped to make our military and our nation stronger.
Today, we face a different kind of transition – a challenging one, too. And that is whether to end the policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Confronted with this question and how to answer it, I have sought the counsel of a number of people over the past year whose wisdom I value. Foremost among them is our Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates.
He has graciously shared his thoughts on this difficult and contentious issue with me and with many of my colleagues in private and in public forums. Today, I stand in agreement with the Secretary and with Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The time has come to repeal the law that requires young men and women to lie about who they are in order to serve their country.
Having said that, however, I also agree with them that this transition – like several of the others that preceded it -- must be done in a way that eases the military into this change over time so that it does not adversely affect military readiness, recruitment or morale.
The proposal we have just approved seeks to do exactly that. It will empower Secretary Gates and our military leaders to begin to carefully implement a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the months ahead. Repeal is not something that’s going to happen overnight. The Secretary and the Joint Chiefs are going to do this in a deliberate and responsible way, and it’s going to take some time. Our military leaders have made it clear that they want Congress to act now, though, to enable them to begin to implement this repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in a thoughtful manner, rather than have the courts force an end to it overnight.
I support that approach and stand behind Secretary Gates and our nation’s other military leaders as they prepare to lead our military and our nation through this historic transition rather than allow the courts to do it for us in ways we might live to regret.