Cheers, Applause Accompany ‘Don’t Ask’ Repeal Signing
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 22, 2010 A jubilant audience greeted an exhilarant president this morning as Barack Obama signed the act that, when implemented, will allow gay Americans to serve openly in the nation’s military for the first time.
President Barrack Obama signs a repeal act in Washington, D.C., Dec. 22, 2010, officially overturning the Don't Ask, Don't Tell law that he said required gay servicemembers to serve in secrecy and isolation. White House photo by Chuck Kennedy
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Those attending the signing chanted “Yes, we can! Yes, we can!” as the commander in chief took the stage.
“Yes, we did,” he said, and was interrupted by a shouted, “Thank you, Mr. President!”
“You're welcome,” he responded, to cheers and laughter. “This is a good day.
”I am just overwhelmed. This is a very good day. And I want to thank all of you, especially the people on this stage, but each and every one of you who [has] been working so hard on this, members of my staff who worked so hard on this,” he said. “I couldn't be prouder.”
Obama then recounted a story from, as he said, “66 years ago, in the dense, snow-covered forests of Western Europe.”
Allied forces were beating back a massive assault in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge, he said.
“And in the final days of fighting, a regiment in the 80th Division of [Gen. George] Patton's 3rd Army came under fire,” the president said. “The men were traveling along a narrow trail. They were exposed, and they were vulnerable. Hundreds of soldiers were cut down by the enemy. And during the firefight, a private named Lloyd Corwin tumbled 40 feet down the deep side of a ravine and, dazed and trapped, he was as good as dead.”
One soldier, a friend of Corwin’s, turned back, Obama said.
“There were shells landing around him amid smoke and chaos and the screams of wounded men,” he said. “This soldier, this friend, scaled down the icy slope, risking his own life to bring Private Corwin to safer ground.”
Corwin credited that friend, Andy Lee, with saving his life, knowing he would never have made it out alone, Obama said.
Four decades later the men were reunited, Obama said, and Corwin learned the friend who had saved his life was gay. He hadn’t known, the president noted, and didn’t much care. His friend had kept him alive, and made it possible for him to come home and start a family and live the rest of his life.
“He knew that valor and sacrifice are no more limited by sexual orientation than they are by race or by gender or by religion or by creed, that what made it possible for him to survive the battlefields of Europe is the reason that we are here today,” the commander in chief said.
Obama said he was proud to sign a law bringing “don’t ask, don’t tell” to an end.
“This law I'm about to sign will strengthen our national security and uphold the ideals that our fighting men and women risk their lives to defend,” he said. “No longer will our country be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans who are forced to leave the military, regardless of their skills, no matter their bravery or their zeal, no matter their years of exemplary performance, because they happen to be gay.
“No longer will tens of thousands of Americans in uniform be asked to live a lie, or look over their shoulder, in order to serve the country that they love,” he continued. “As [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Admiral Mike Mullen has said, our people sacrifice a lot for their country, including their lives. None of them should have to sacrifice their integrity as well.”
Many people “fought long and hard to reach this day,” the president said. “I want to thank the Democrats and Republicans who put conviction ahead of politics to get this done together.”
Obama went on to list other members of Congress and military leaders who worked to bring about the policy’s repeal, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Mullen.
“Finally, I want to express my gratitude to the men and women in this room, who have worn the uniform of the United States armed services,” he said to audience applause. “I want to thank all the patriots who are here today, all of them who were forced to hang up their uniforms as a result of ‘don't ask, don't tell,’ but who never stopped fighting for this country, and who rallied and who marched and fought for change. I want to thank everyone here who stood with them in that fight. Because of these efforts, in the coming days, we will begin the process laid out by this law.”
While open service will only fully occur after a certification process and a further 60-day period, Obama said, he believes the military is ready for the change.
The president quoted what one special operations warfighter said during the Pentagon's review, calling it “one of my favorites.”
Qutoing the uniformed man in question, Obama said, “‘We have a gay guy in the unit. He's big. He's mean. He kills lots of bad guys. No one cared that he was gay.’ And I think that sums up,
perfectly, the situation.”
Throughout the history of the United States, Obama said, gay Americans have served in the military.
“[They] fought just as hard, gave just as much to protect this nation and the ideals for which it stands,” the president said. “There can be little doubt there were gay soldiers who fought for American independence, who consecrated the ground at Gettysburg, who manned the trenches along the Western Front, who stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima. Their names are etched into the walls of our memorials. Their headstones dot the grounds at Arlington.”
Obama named those present at the ceremony who had been discharged under “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
“Distinguished officers like former Navy commander Zoe Dunning,” he said, “Marines like Eric Alva, one of the first Americans to be injured in Iraq. Leaders like Captain Jonathan Hopkins, who led a platoon into northern Iraq during the initial invasion, quelling an ethnic riot, earning a Bronze Star with valor.
“He was … discharged only to receive e-mails and letters from his soldiers saying they had known he was gay all along, and thought that he was the best commander they ever had,” the president said.
According to White House officials, Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva was the first American wounded in the war in Iraq. March 21, 2003, he was traveling in Iraq in a convoy to Basra with his battalion when he stepped on a landmine, breaking his right arm and damaging his leg so badly that it needed to be amputated. Alva was awarded a Purple Heart and received a medical discharge from the military. He has been working with the Human Rights Campaign to speak out against the "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy.
Also according to administration officials, Navy Cmdr. Zoe Dunning is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. In January 1993, while a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve, she publicly came out as a lesbian at a political rally outside the gates of California's Moffett Field.
Dunning won her subsequent two-and-a-half year legal battle to remain in the Navy Reserve. The Navy promoted her twice and awarded her the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal and the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal since her coming out. She retired in June 2007 and holds the distinction of serving her country as an openly gay member of the U.S. military for more than 13 years.
There are many similar stories, Obama said, and they “only underscore the importance of enlisting the service of all who are willing to fight for this country.
“That's why I hope those soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who have been discharged under this discriminatory policy will seek to reenlist once the repeal is implemented,” he said to cheers and applause. “That is why I say to all Americans, gay or straight, who want nothing more than to defend this country in uniform: your country needs you, your country wants you, and we will be honored to welcome you into the ranks of the finest military the world has ever known.”
On a visit to Afghanistan a few weeks ago, Obama said, he encountered a young woman in uniform among a crowd of other servicemembers.
“And she pulled me into a hug, and she whispered in my ear, ‘Get ‘don't ask, don't tell’ done,’” he said. “And I said to her, ‘I promise you I will.’”
As Obama prepared to sign, an audience member shouted, “Thank you, Mr. President!”
“You're welcome!” he said.