Retired Battleship Hosts NYC Gala a Year After DADT Repeal
Celebrities and military top brass gathered aboard the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum on Sept. 18 for "Celebrating Our Heroes: A Tribute to America’s Service Members & Veterans," presented by Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), OutServe, and the Interbank Roundtable Committee (IRC).
The Intrepid is a decommissioned Navy battleship that is now part of the Smithsonian Museum. It is permanently anchored on a pier in the Hudson River in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood.
The event marked the first anniversary of the repeal of the discriminatory "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy, which mandated that LGBT military personnel could not reveal their sexual orientation and would be dismissed if it were found out. ABC news correspondent Barbara Walters was on hand to honor former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, who played a significant leadership role implementing an out-gay military policy, which took effect on Sept. 20, 2011.
"In every instance that people have fought for something right, it has enriched every American," Walters said in her introductory remarks. "We fought for something that was right."
Walters praised Mullen for testifying before Congress and the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 2, 2010. His testimony helped GOP members like Scott Brown to join Democrats to repeal the policy that served to drum gay and lesbian service members out of the Armed Forces.
"Admiral, you’ve done so much to bring comfort and council to thousands of military families, especially those who provide care for our wounded warriors. And your testimony is what helped to turn the tide," said Walters. "So tonight our gay and lesbian service members can not only be open and honest about who you are, you can be recognized for your courage and your service."
The repeal of DADT meant that veterans who were discharged for being gay could now have those discharges corrected, Walters noted. Among those cases was Melvin Dwork, a 90-year-old service member discharged during World War II. With SLDN’s help, he is set to receive a retroactive upgrade, changing his discharge to "honorable." This will allow him to finally qualify for Veterans Administration benefits.
For Andrew Espinoza, however, a former Air Force member pressed out of the service for kissing a man on the cheek, this is too little, too late.
"I think that in the past so many people were treated so poorly during the discharge, they turned people’s lives upside down investigating them, and they turned people against each other," said Espinoza, an attendee at the Intrepid celebration. "They ruined the lives of good people serving their country on a volunteer basis."
Although the retroactive repeal might not apply to his case, he was still pleased to be on hand celebrating the repeal of a hateful policy.
"It took people like him with the common sense to bring this up in a bill, and it’s time," said Espinoza. "It’s good to see that in the future, our young Americans who are doing this can be who they want to be while serving their country."
U.S. Military Has Only Improved Since DADT Repeal
On Sept. 20, 2011, the military repealed DADT, a policy implemented on Dec. 21, 1993 by President William J. Clinton.
The policy was intended to prohibit military personnel from discriminating against closeted gay service members, but served to bar openly LGBT people from service, because they "would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability."
In his February 2010 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mullen said, "I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forced young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens. For me, it comes down to integrity -- theirs as individuals and ours as an institution."
Nearly two years later, he stood on the deck of the Intrepid to report that the repeal of the policy was the right thing to do. Rather than compromise unit cohesion, as anti-gay activists predicted, it has actually improved military morale.
"Over the course of the year there have been no negative effects of the bill," said Mullen. "Everything is still working, which shows that in the past year since the repeal, nothing bad has come of it."
Human Rights Campaign former Executive Director Elizabeth Birch echoed this sentiment. The repeal of DADT marked a huge improvement in the military, she said.
"This change was made even though there were many voices in our society, particularly in our political system, who thought it would be destructive for the military, that unit cohesion would collapse, that the effectiveness of the organization would collapse," said Birch.
"Nevertheless, Admiral Mullen and so many others with his testimony on Capitol Hill was able to convince our elected leaders that it was the right thing to do, and it was also safe to do it," she continued. "A year later we’re here to mark time and say as a nation we took the risk, we implemented the change, and the military is still together, still a powerful institution, and there’s been no real problems whatsoever. Our troops were ready for this change, even if our political leaders were not."